Adam Sandler — on some subconscious, primordial level — wants to do good work, judging by the fact that he has, on intermittent occasions, collaborated with respected directors on respectable movies (“Punch Drunk Love,” “Funny People,” maybe “Spanglish”).
That might be helpful for his sanity, and our collective good taste. But anyone advising Sandler on his career may actually want to give him the opposite counsel: Make more bad movies.
That’s because lately we’ve shown an odd disposition when it comes to Sandler vehicles — we buy tickets in inverse proportion to how good they are.
Of course, good is a subjective, and in Sandler’s case lately, a relative term. But the actor in recent years has shown some disturbing tendencies, and we’re not even referring to all those scatological moments in “Jack and Jill.”
As a rule, even commercial actors see a positive correlation between reviews and box office. Consider Tom Cruise, a star who’s always been about fans as much as reviews. His last four movies have performed at the box office in direct proportion to their appeal among critics. The poorest-reviewed, according to Rotten Tomatoes, “Lions for Lambs,” is also the lowest grossing. His second worst-reviewed, “Knight Day,” is the second-lowest grossing. And so on.
There are plenty of reasons why it works this way. The simplest is that the hardcore fans will always come out, no matter how much a movie is panned. But strong reviews can bring in those fans as well as filmgoers who wouldn’t normally see a given star’s movie.
Sandler, though, somehow shows the opposite trend. Entering this weekend, his past six starring vehicles almost always made money in direct proportion to how much critics hated them. The worst-reviewed of the lot, “Grown Ups” (10% on Rotten Tomatoes) made the most money (an eye-popping $162 million). His second-worst reviewed, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (14%) was the second best-performing ($120 million).
And when he scored marginally better with critics, as with “Just Go With It” (20%), his box office dropped to $103 million. Call it the Sandler Rule — the higher a movie’s quality, the smaller the group that turns out to see it.
Now, you might say that’s just because we don’t want to see a broad-comedy actor doing anything serious or reaching for a meaty dramatic role he can’t pull off. But the Sandler Rule applies in the middle of the curve too. “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” was hardly Oscar bait. But it scored better with critics than his other recent movies — and performed worse at the box office. “Zohan,” with an almost passable 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, barely hit $100 million.
His newly released cross-dressing comedy “Jack and Jill” will break the pattern a little bit. The movie is by far the worst reviewed of his recent starring roles — at 3%, it’s in the hallowed single-digit company of “One Missed Call” and most of Joel Schumacher’s canon — and it won’t be a record-breaker at the box office.
But it still took in a solid $26 million this weekend, which means it will almost unquestionably outgross “Punch Drunk Love,” “Funny People” and “Spanglish.” To create an Adam Sandler hit, you don’t necessarily have to make the movie good. But it certainly helps to make it bad.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Adam Sandler in “Jack and Jill.” Credit: Sony Pictures