Anyone with a passing knowledge of Adam Sandler’s films or critics’ relationships to them could have predicted that Jack and Jill would not go over with the Rotten Tomatoes crowd (it has scored a 3% approval rating, his lowest yet as a star). Sandler’s movies have been consistent targets of critical scorn more or less since Billy Madison back in 1995. The films, however, have actually changed over the years.
Sandler’s earliest comedies, silly and obvious as they were, had a marauding youthful energy, from the surrealism of Madison to the slapstick of Happy Gilmore. But as Sandler has grown more comfortable — and as his fans have ascended into middle age with him — his comic persona has grown slouchier, more suburban. He’s now content to play cranky straight man in his own movies, making wan cracks about his weirdo friends, ethnically “other” employees, and assorted have-nots — the comedy equivalent of a rich guy making condescending small talk with his gardener.
It’s this Sandler who plays Jack, the supposedly normal half of Jack and Jill. He’s a successful advertising executive who voices concern for the well-being of his many employees, an intermittent Sandler tactic for the past decade or so, whenever he wants to make sure the audience knows that he’s (playing) the good-hearted sort of rich guy. Jack is afraid for his employees because his firm’s valuable Dunkin Donuts account is threatening to walk unless he can score Al Pacino for an ad.
Jack’s stress is compounded by a Thanksgiving visit from his twin sister Jill, also played by Sandler. While Jack lives in a cushy California near-mansion with his trophy-ish wife Erin (Katie Holmes) and their two kids, Jill has stayed in the Bronx. She’s loud, strapping caricature of someone’s out-of-step aunt: she flubs movie titles, she doesn’t understand the Internet, and her best friend is a noisy cockatoo. She’s also clearly lonely, craving “family time” and, especially, borderline creepy “twin time.” Erin encourages Jack to humor his sister, but he mostly grits his teeth and waits for her to fly back east.
When Jill reveals she has an open-ended plane ticket, the movie proceeds essentially as an endearing-pest comedy in the mode of What About Bob?, with the added twist — belabored and bizarre — that Jack uses his sister to reel in Pacino for his ad.
To sum up: Jack and Jill places Adam Sandler in drag opposite a slumming, self-parodying Al Pacino. It practically begs non-fans to despise it.
No surprise, some critics have singled out the irritation of Sandler as the Jill. But it’s Jack who’s more off-putting, and more representative of Sandler’s weaknesses over the past decade of Happy Madison Productions comedies. Jack’ s immediate sourness over his sister’s visit and unkind (and not very funny, the way that just plain folks often aren’t very funny) wisecracks exemplify the movie’s (and Sandler’s) frequent laziness.
Jill, at least, represents energy rarely seen in Sandler’s Happy Madison movies (and usually saved for his occasional appearances in someone else’s movies, like Funny People or Punch-Drunk Love). Sandler done up as a tacky lady is about as subtle as you expect, yet there’s also something touching about Jill’s neediness, her cluelessness, and the passive-aggressive way she catches up with her brother’s wealth (“Is that a new chandelier? I liked the old one”).
It’s also fun to hear Sandler doing a crazy voice again, something he seemed to banish from his repertoire following the failure of Little Nicky back in 2000. As Jill, he affects a Bronx Jew bray, and the sketch-comedy ridiculousness is almost liberating: he’s playing a new character, rather than a tired gloss on his post-famous self. Jill may look like Sandler in drag, but she’s convincing as a personality.
This is at least partly a function of her specificity. Jill is a proudly aggressive Jew, a lifelong New York City resident who claims never to have tried Mexican food (“They don’t have it at my deli”). This is different from the off-putting minority or ethnic characters of so many Sandler pictures, particularly those who are supposed to be Hispanic. Here, the example is Felipe (Eugenio Derbez), Jack’s landscaper and a purveyor of dopey border-crossing jokes (his disclaimer, “I’m just kidding!”, tacked on at the end of each is supposed to make him self-aware rather than, say, the product of a smug white comedy writer). But when Jill accompanies Felipe to a family picnic, the sequence, the scene is not only half-offensive; it also conjures a melting-pot camaraderie.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the last Sandler movie to engage with his Jewishness and treat other ethnic groups as amusingly idiosyncratic rather than debased objects was You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), his best broad comedy of recent years. Of course, Zohan had the advantage of two of Sandler’s funniest friends: Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel collaborated with him on the screenplay. Smigel allegedly did a polish on Jack and Jill, but the credited screenwriters are Sandler and ex-SNL writer (and current high-concept comedy engineer) Steve Koren. Smigel’s absurdist tendencies don’t emerge often enough.
But they do exist, most clearly in the Pacino subplot, much weirder and funnier than most of the movie, which relies on a typical mix of slapstick and kid-friendly grossness for its comic beats. Whenever Pacino turns up, the movie feels energized. He plays himself more or less as he’s played other characters in recent years, with a studied whispery eccentricity, roaring intensity, and weird hair. He speaks gobbledygook Italian, answers his cell phone during a performance of Richard III, pursues Jill with hot-blooded passion, and pretty much runs away with every scene he’s in. It is inarguably beneath his dignity. It’s also hilarious.
Because of Pacino’s self-parody and Sandler’s drag act, Jack and Jill has bigger laughs than the likes of Click or Just Go With It. But it still indulges in many bad Happy Madison habits, tics that have begun to feel like perverse ritual. As usual, Sandler is given an attractive, humorless yet patient wife — he stopped putting effort into wooing women onscreen when he last hooked up with Drew Barrymore, one of his only convincing female foils, in 50 First Dates. Multiple hot actresses since then (Kate Beckinsale, Salma Hayek, et. al.) have competed over who can appear least engaged in a romantic relationship with an irritable Sandler; Holmes, 12 years his junior, is now reigning champion, as she paints a portrait of a sad, lifeless marriage.
Jack and Jill resurrects a few other familiar tropes, from product placement jokes (a Sandler hallmark ever since Happy Gilmore, now incorporated into Jack’s career as an ad man) and the regulars employed by Happy Madison Productions. These include ex-SNL cast members (Rob Schneider, David Spade, Tim Meadows, Dana Carvey, Norm MacDonald) and various hangers-on (Allen Covert, Peter Dante, frequent director Dennis Dugan). But this practice is wearing thin: Sandler used to pass laughs to costars like John Turturro or Steve Buscemi. Now, usually effective players like Meadows and MacDonald barely get a couple of lines.
All this makes Jack and Jill something of an uber-text for Happy Madison comedies of the past 10 or 12 years, steeped in crass capitalism and curdled family values. Jack and Jill‘s conflict seems to come less from the screenplay than the star’s psyche, pitting the goony, nice-Jewish-boy-gone-wild Sandler (Jill) against the lazy, too-comfortable California Sandler (Jack). It’s id versus ego. And in broad comedy, id is often funnier. Like her or not, Jill represents the kind of comic risk Sandler undertakes with decreasing frequency; the listless, unpleasant Jack is her opposite.
Neither side can claim victory yet. Jack learns a nominal lesson about the importance of family and Jill’s silliness isn’t sharp or original enough to save the movie. Jack and Jill could turn out to be a crossroads for Sandler, from which he turns back toward screwier, livelier comedy, or it could be just a marginally more inspired effort in a long trail of mediocrity. For the time being, Adam Sandler has fought himself to a draw.