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Adam Sandler: After 15 years, he keeps serving his fans, which is why they serve him

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grown-upsImage Credit: Tracy BennettAdam Sandler has always enjoyed a special relationship with his fans, because he presents himself as a barely glorified version of them. He mirrors their silliness, their corny-horny obsessiveness,  their wholesome arrested development, and — now — their lunge toward middle age. More often than not, they return the favor by turning out for his movies. At 43, Sandler still has a kind of pact with his audience, an I’ll-always-be-me slapstick nobility. After years of hit comedies, he still looks the same — same bullet-headed buzzcut, same boyishly gawky grin, same soft-bodied pudge that says, “Hey, I may be a big movie star, but I do likes to eat!” And when he isn’t taking one of his periodic detours into being a serious actor (something he can be quite brilliant at), he still makes goofy, madcap-obvious, and at times very funny movies. His $40 million opening weekends are, by now, a summer tradition; considering that he became a major movie star 15 years ago, his track record, despite a few bumps in the road, is astonishingly sustained. What’s shrewd, intriguing, and admirable about Sandler’s career is that the comedies he shepherds and stars in often appear to be animated by an unchanging naughty-boy spirit, but in their irresponsible and slightly plastic way, they’ve gradually grown up. They’ve mirrored the lives of Sandler’s fans.

The early Sandler hits, made when he was in his late twenties and early thirties, were pure infantile anarchy: comedies like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), and (the best of them) The Waterboy (1998), in which he essentially played lovable-nudnik mental defectives — modern-day Jerry Lewis basket cases. Then came his key transitional film, The Wedding Singer (1998), in which he rolled himself in a sweet thick pastry of ’80s nostalgia and “normalized” his image. It worked! He emerged from all that goo-goo-voiced krazy doofiness and proved that he could be a different sort of leading man, a tradition he continued in Mr. Deeds (2002), 50 First Dates (2004), and Click (2006). More recently, Sandler’s work has acquired a dada dimension of tongue-in-cheek social commentary: I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007) was a hilarious oxymoron — a plea for sexual tolerance from a benign reactionary — and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) was like Munich starring Peter Sellers.

With the new hit comedy Grown Ups, however, Sandler extends his autobiographical arc and takes a new leap of faith, one that his fans clearly appreciated a lot more than most of the media did. Working with his regular collaborator, the director Dennis Dugan, Sandler now embraces the comedy of middle-aged schlubdom, creating a suburban cartoon gross-out version of The Big Chill. Most of the reviews for Grown Ups have been scathing; the film was so dismissed that a lot of observers were probably shocked to see that it made $41 million in its opening weekend. Yet Sandler, once again, plays to his audience like a seasoned maestro. The movie has just enough adolescent japery to feed your inner comedy beast: Rob Schneider salivating over his ancient hippie wife or getting mangled in a game of arrow roulette; Maria Bello breast-feeding her and Kevin James’ four-year-old son; our heroes peeing in a swimming pool and turning the water tell-tale blue. Mostly, though, Sandler and his fellow actors (David Spade, Chris Rock, Schneider, and James) bash and pummel each other with one-liners that are the comedy equivalent of foam-rubber bats. Playing five chums mired in the pleasant chaos of family life or, simply, in the demise of their youth, they’re too fortyish and weary to get off on the fun of the forbidden; they’re just trying to get by. And a lot of the people in Sandler’s fan club obviously relate. For two decades, they’ve been happy to grow up with him, and the success of Grown Ups signals that they may now be happy to start growing old with him, too.

So who out there liked Grown Ups? Do you think it got a bum rap from critics? And what is it about Adam Sandler that makes him not just funny but such a decade-spanning comedy hero? What’s your all-time favorite Sandler film?