EDITORIAL: “That’s My Boy: Does the Failure of Two Adam Sandler Flicks in a Row Signal the End of his Box Office Reign?”

Do movie stars still exist? Summer 2012 seems determined to answer that question with a resounding “No”.

Hollywood has long been obsessed with the idea of a box office star – an actor who can reel in a healthy audience to theaters regardless of the quality of their newest picture. With the “guarantee” of a high turnout, stars like Julia Roberts in the 90s and Will Smith in the last decade were able to negotiate not only high salaries but bonus perks including a percentage of the final gross. In an industry with far too many flops, nothing brings executives more comfort than a safety net. Well, it may be time to start panicking.

Witness the disastrous performance of not one but two new releases this weekend with a consistently high-grossing actor in the lead role. Broadway adaptation Rock of Ages, with industry veteran Tom Cruise playing an aging rocker, failed to excite audiences and debuted in 3rd place with a meager $15.06 million. The R-rated Adam Sandler vehicle That’s My Boy did even worse, grossing a lackluster $13 million to open in 5th place. The latter result is particularly shocking and unexpected.

One of the most successful box office draws of all time, Sandler has rarely seen one of his comedies gross less than $100 million domestically. That’s My Boy will be the second one in less than a year. What went wrong and what does the result mean for Adam Sandler’s career? Here’s why That’s My Boy was a miss at the box office:

1. The rating definitely played a role…

Adam Sandler has usually been one of the most bulletproof actors in Hollywood. Up until now, the collective critical hatred for his movies has done little to stop his traditional male audience from coming out. Take a look at a couple performances in the last few years. Ensemble comedy Grown Ups sits at 10% on the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer but brought in $40 million its first weekend. 2008’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan opened to $38 million with a 38% rating. The more family-friendly Click from 2006 grossed $40 million on a 33%. The poor reviews likely did nothing to hurt That’s My Boy.

The only other consistent factor? All previous Sandler comedies were rated a family-friendly PG-13. That’s My Boy marked Sandler’s first “official” foray into the R-rated comedy (2009 dramedy Funny People doesn’t really count). The idea was untested and ultimately proved to be a bad investment.

Although The Hangover series has demonstrated that adult comedy can perform ludicrously well at the box office, Sandler’s niche has always been catering to a slightly younger audience. The R rating absolutely dampened the chances of success for That’s My Boy.

2. …but it can’t be the whole story

It’s tempting to accept the R rating as the only reason for That’s My Boy’s failure. With a few exceptions (most of them more “dramatic” movies that weren’t supposed to be massive box office draws like 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, 2004’s Spanglish and 2007’s Reign Over Me), Sandler’s PG-13 comedies have never fallen below $100 million at the box office. The pattern was largely consistent for more than a decade.

But something weird happened with 2011’s Jack and Jill, a flop which found Sandler playing dual roles as a family man and the twin sister who makes his life a living hell. The movie had all the standard Sandler trademarks – the script was co-written by him, the flick received an honorable 3% on the Tomatometer, and the PG rating ensured the movie would not keep youngsters out of the theaters. The formula for success seemed set in place…and then the movie bombed miserably, finishing with a  paltry $75 million.

Jack and Jill is proof that Sandler is capable of performing poorly regardless of rating. So what explains the awful performance? My guess is this:

  1. The generation that knew Sandler as a standout on SNL, as a musical performer on numerous comedy CDs, and as the breakout comedic star of the 90s is probably getting too old for his antics. Sandler may offer some nostalgia but little more to attract these folk (who are probably in their late 20s to late 30s).
  2. Teenagers of today are less familiar with his arguably “funnier” older flicks, amused but not overly excited by his new releases, and more eager to embrace modern comedic stars like Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. It’s arguable that the same problem brought Jim Carrey’s and Eddie Murphy’s careers to a standstill a decade ago. The two were unable to bridge the gap between audiences and found their star power fading. History may be repeating itself.

Can Sandler recuperate? It’s too early to say that Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy mark the end of the comic’s string of hits but the two should serve as a warning sign. It’s a signal that the actor can no longer get by on just the Sandler name. The next few projects have to be enhanced by Sandler’s presence rather than depend on it.

This doesn’t mean the 45-year-old actor has to start appealing to older audiences with more mature fare. By all means, keep the fart jokes and physical gags in but remember that there’s still a difference between a critically panned movie and one that sweeps the Razzies like Jack and Jill did. It can be despised by the critics but it can’t be that bad.

3. Same old, same old

The yawn-inducing That’s My Boy trailer offered nothing new and little to laugh at. Yes, Sandler’s comedy has rarely deviated from his standard formula — that’s perhaps one of the reasons for his (former?) success — but considering this is supposed to be the best of the film packed into two minutes, even the casual fan has to admit it’s remarkably dull.

Written by Boris Paskhaver

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