Twenty Years Later, "Happy Gilmore" Is Still Shooting Right Around Par
Twenty years ago, Adam Sandler was not yet a star, let alone an emblem of fame-burnout. In "Happy Gilmore," he did his thing, squared off with Bob Barker, and won.
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Less than a year since the one-two punch to your own face that was Pixels and Ridiculous Six, another Adam Sandler film quietly came and went on Netflix last month. You don't actually have to watch the movie; neither your physician nor I would recommend you put your body through such an ordeal. Any morbid curiosity at post-bloat, only-wears-shorts-now Adam Sandler can be sated by watching the trailer to The Do-Over, in which Sandler and David Spade spend other people's money; it is difficult to describe what little plot there is without using the word "cuck" to describe Spade's character.
It wasn't always this way. Adam Sandler movies were once entertaining and actually even funny, and sometimes they were about sports.
It's hard to imagine that Happy Gilmore would be a creative peak for the Adam Sandler Movie, and an outlier from Sandler's actual career, lest we punish Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People by lumping them in with, say, The Cobbler, Jack and Jill, or any of his countless vacations-disguised-as-movies. Happy Gilmore is still very flawed, but it has a marked advantage over just about any of the films Sandler made after The Waterboy, in that its main character grows as a person, or at the very least matures as a man-child.
Adam Sandler is Happy Gilmore, an immature dude who, for a hockey player, is not bad at golf. After Happy's single father dies from an errant puck at a hockey game, he lives with his loving grandma and tries to live his dream of becoming an IRL character from the classic video game Blades Of Steel. We pick up the action after a montage of odd jobs and Adam Sandler humping various things. When he accidentally shoots his boss in the head with a nail gun, your man Gilmore quickly loses his job, his girlfriend, and one last shot at making the local hockey team; finally, he learns that Grandma hasn't paid her taxes since the days when taxes were a good thing in this country, and that she's going to lose the house Happy's grandfather (kayfabe) built with his own two hands.
And so, Happy Gilmore buckles down, finds a job that he loves, and is truly at peace with himself and his career choices. And by that I mean, "gets pissed at the movers repo-ing his family's heirlooms and smacks a bunch of golf balls 400 yards, later channeling that into a side-hustle at the local driving range." It is there that he meets Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), who gives Happy a hand (and another, more comically abused prosthetic hand) in joining the pro tour and eventually developing a short game. Happy is only motivated by money, but he develops a friendship with Chubbs, and a relationship with "pro tour" marketing exec/bad boy enabler Virginia Venit (Julie Bowen).
A rivalry also develops with Shooter McGavin, played the always excellent Christopher McDonald, whose petulance doesn't mesh with Happy's mere immaturity, but he does give us a classic asshole to root against outwardly while secretly hoping he wins. There is a "slobs versus snobs" aspect to the routine, and to most any Adam Sandler movie, but in 1996 it was easier for viewers to identify as slobs right alongside him. To imagine Sandler today is to imagine Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, a man who gained the world but lost his soul, albeit through less sophomoric humor and unnecessary onscreen screaming at grandmas. Adam Sandler just wants to be loved, by a really hot woman half his age in a movie in which he's getting paid millions of dollars to dick around.
No review of Happy Gilmore would be complete without mentioning the legendary Bob Barker cameo, playing Hole-In-One-Or-Eighty at a pro-am event after Joe Flaherty (as a goon paid off by Shooter) distracts Happy into a blinding rage. The scene is genuinely funny, buoyed less by Sandler's rage than Barker's ultra-game willingness to play along. Good old reliable Wikipedia credits Happy Gilmore for getting younger people to watch The Price Is Right, which may or may not be true, but which was certainly more successful than having Rod Roddy rap, or my unsolicited suggestion of Strip Plinko.
Retroactively problematic synergy in Happy Gilmore was not confined to Adam Sandler beating up a famous old orange guy who possibly deserved it. In a move that foreshadowed Sandler's willingness to ladle over so much product placement as to turn his movies into cinematic NASCAR vehicles, one of Happy's defining character traits is that he eats a lot of Subway sandwiches and wears the chain's t-shirts on the way to a tour championship. The inevitable Adam Sandler product placement is all around, but we hadn't yet come to expect it from an actor who, even in his best performances, hordes Healthy Choice pudding packs to exploit a promotional loophole, or joins James Taylor on the losing end of the MySpace/Facebook war. Happy Gilmore has some good jokes, but one of the biggest things working its favor is that it came at a time when no one was tired of Adam Sandler yet, and when Sandler himself seemed less tired of his shtick.
The supporting cast does a lot of the heavy lifting in Happy Gilmore, and is a big part of what makes the movie watchable to this day. Julie Bowen, who would later win two Emmy awards for Modern Family, is good as the perfunctory love interest, while Frances Bay excels as the true love of Happy's life, his grandma. Carl Weathers has had so many memorable roles in his career, from Action Jackson to Carl Weathers, but Chubbs Peterson is a comedic goldmine, and gave fans who knew him best as Apollo Creed (or Fortune Dane) a new way to appreciate him. An uncredited Ben Stiller sinks his teeth into the role of Hal, the abusive elder care provider, and is much more fun than a character of that nature has a right to be.
Dennis Dugan—I would be remiss if I did not his mention turn as the title character in the short-lived Rockford Files spinoff Richie Brockelman, Private Eye—directed Happy Gilmore and many of the other, sadder Gilmore-esque movies in Sandler's career. Dugan does a fine job both behind the camera and in front of it, as the pro tour figurehead who is constantly being pushed around by both McGavin and Venit. The late great Richard Kiel actually has a lot to do in his smaller role, trolling McGavin with all the eloquence the man best known for playing Jaws in a James Bond movie can muster. Kevin Nealon also has a brief cameo, which is always nice, although it is far from his greatest moment on the golf course. Even Lee Trevino, who is only there to react to Happy's antics, does a good job with what little he has.
Happy Gilmore is by no means a great movie, but it is likeable enough, and it's impressive whenever a Loved It As A Kid movie holds up even remotely well two decades after its release. For all its silliness, Happy Gilmore is also a sort of time capsule for the last few years of golf in the pre-Tiger Woods era. In the years to come, the competition between Tiger and his contemporaries took the sport to places no boob-signing man-child could have dreamed of; one of the core jokes of Happy Gilmore, about golf being starchy and dull, was conditionally suspended for the better part of a decade. If Happy Gilmore did not directly anticipate the golfing boom that immediately followed its release, it certainly preceded it, and gave people too young to enjoy the, uh, finer points of Caddyshack and Caddyshack II a point of reference from which to build an understanding and love for the game. It also gave Adam Sandler a template for the sophomoric material that, over the next two decades, would eventually become (wait for it) par for the course.
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