For at least a decade, SNL alum Adam Sandler has been reviled as pretty much the worst actor ever on the face of the Earth—with a string of movies that, while doing “moderately” well at the box-office and apparently gangbusters on streaming, have been massive critical failures (well except according to Sandler fanboy Armond White).
But the Netflix original movie comedy Sandy Wexler, about a schlumpy Hollywood talent manager, just might break the trend. I was genuinely shocked at just how much I enjoyed this movie.
The most readily-available movie that comes to mind when trying to describe Sandy Wexler is probably Sandler’s most critically-acclaimed film, Punch-Drunk Love; I’m in no way saying it is at the same level as that 2002 cult movie, but I see little echoes of Barry Egan in the awkward and sensitive Wexler. The result is an incredibly charming comedy that shows off the actor’s range in quite unexpected ways.
The movie takes place in the early 1990s, with “flashforwards” to some sort of star-studded Hollywood event in which real-life celebrities (and also Vanilla Ice) get interviewed about fictional manager Wexler. And the film will continually refer to that era in everything from Time Cop and The Shadow movie billboards, to Blockbuster Video, to a preponderance of Arsenio Hall. It is the period of time right before Sandler himself started to hit it big—in short, a mostly Sandler-less Hollywood.
The nebbishy Wexler (and Sandler goes full Jerry Lewis here) is extremely annoying and kind of a terrible manager for his motley crew of oddball clients (most notably Kevin James as a ventriloquist and Terry Crews as a wrestler)—but he’s a good guy at heart. One day he sees Courtney Clarke (Jennifer Hudson) singing in a corny kid show in a park, and is so taken by her vocal talent that he decides to make her a star; then he falls in love with her.
From everything I thus described for you so far, this movie set-up sounds like it could potentially be a tone-deaf disaster. But Sandler manages to pull it off and make it work. The romance between Wexler and Clarke feels completely believable (and Hudson does a great job here). Sandler does go full Jerry Lewis in this flick, which requires a certain degree of acting unbelievably repetitively annoying, but it never distracts or annoys so much that you can’t empathize with him. And supporting actors like James, Crews, Colin Quinn, and Nick Swardson turn in performances that are both funny but have some grounding as actual characters with lives & not just one-note sight gags.
I can’t help but feel that Sandler himself yearns (at least in terms of inspiration) for a trip back to the early Nineties, when he was a rising star at Saturday Night Live and was just on the cusp of breaking out with classic films like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore (hell, I especially liked The Waterboy personally). Sandy Wexler has been in the business a long time and has to face certain personal demons (“demons” might be a little too dramatic—more like “gremlins” or “ghoulies”) to get to the next level of his life. And he does get to that next level, leading to a movie finale that actually got my “movie finale goosebumps/misty eyes” on alert.
In a broader sense, Netflix seems to be a really good fit for Sandler and his vision, providing him with the freedom to make films exactly how he wants them made. I can totally imagine a mainstream movie studio asking for a shorter Sandy Wexler (this one clocks in at two hours) & cuts in some of the longer/subtler/thoughtful scenes; but in the final product, this unique pacing delivers a funnier and ultimately more poignant movie.
Similarly, I also liked last year’s True Memoirs Of An International Assassin with Sandler buddy and equally-reviled-by-the-critics actor Kevin James. I’m not saying these flicks are the equivalent of Citizen Kane—just that they’re an enjoyable watch. And (read this in Sandy Wexler’s voice now) sometimes, that’s all you want.
Sandy Wexler is currently streaming on Netflix