This is Adam Sandler’s best work in years
It’s safe to say that critics don’t really care for the comedic styling of Adam Sandler.
He’s a huge star, a fact Netflix bet heavily on when the streaming service signed him to a four-movie deal in 2014, and then re-upped that deal last year.
But his filmography includes at least two entries with a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (“Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,” which he wrote, and “The Ridiculous 6,” a Netflix-only Western parody that features him alongside Terry Crews, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo and Nick Nolte -- to name a few). Several of his other films hover between the 1 and 10 percent mark.
That probably accounts for the title of his first stand-up special in decades: “100% Fresh.” It’s part of his Netflix deal that has yielded a crop of movies that show the comic trying out a new direction but that critics have generally despised.
The most surprising part is simply that’s the new special is good. And why it’s good might be illuminating: It relies on nothing but Sandler’s absurdist observations, and puerile humor distilled in short parody songs that can’t help but worm their way into your head.
By stripping away all the baggage that generally comes with Sandler -- yes, that means David Spade, Rob Schneider (who only appears for a brief moment, the special’s worst), all the over-the-top costumes and absurd plots - the audience can focus on Sandler. The only other person on stage is pianist Dan Bulla, who co-wrote all the songs and occasionally acts as a foil.
Made for social media
Sandler doesn’t totally ditch the silly voices or ridiculous characters; he just doesn’t try turning them into a feature-length movie. Instead, the whole special feels like it was made for the social media generation. It’s culled from dozens of live performances from venues ranging from tiny comedy clubs to arenas in Los Angeles and New Jersey.
Nearly every segment -- the longest of which lasts about a minute, until the final 10 minutes -- comes from a different appearance. Sometimes multiple performances are spliced together into a single, less than 60-second bit. The result is that each one could easily be dropped into a tweet, or an Instagram post, and stand completely alone.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the special is how gifted a musician the comic is. He perfectly apes artists as wide-ranging as Joy Division, Interpol, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Migos. The songs are joyfully childish, generally revolving around a simple idea like a smelly Uber driver, what we carry in our pockets in the modern world, or your kid being cast in a school play.
The two best moments that are almost assured to go viral on social media are unexpected in wildly different ways.
One is a prerecorded bit of Sandler in disguise attempting to busk in a New York City subway. He’s performing the same material as in this special, but no one finds him funny. He doesn’t get a cent, but he does get some dirty looks. It’s almost like Sandler is saying, “Yeah, I know this is stupid, but at least it’s fun?”
The second is the totally unexpected one-two punch of the show’s final songs: one an ode to his late friend Chris Farley and the other an ode to his wife, Jackie Sandler.
He introduces the Farley song with: “This is a very special song.” And it is. With a Farley montage playing on a screen behind him, Sandler sings about his friend with an unexpected sincerity, even while the lyrics generally remain humorous.
Then Sandler sings some truth: “We’d tell him somehow you’ll end up like Belushi and Candy / He said those guys are my heroes that’s all fine and dandy,” before offering a painful scene from Farley’s funeral:
“But a few months later, the party came to an end
“We flew out to Madison to bury our friend
“Nothing was harder than saying goodbye
“Except watching Chris’ father have his turn to cry”
The song is deeply affecting, ending with a coda: “Maybe, if we’ll make enough noise, he’ll hear us.”
“I couldn’t wait to sing that, and I knew it would be special,” he tells the audience, before fondly remembering his friend. “He was the best. He was the best.”
For the last few minutes, Sandler holds on to that vulnerability by closing the show with a sincere - if not funny and a little dirty -- song to his wife with an updated version of “Grow Old With You” from “The Wedding Singer.”
It chronicles their relationship, including a callback to the special’s title: “When I’m on a diet, you take away my potatoes / Say ‘(expletive) all those guys after reading Rotten Tomatoes / I hope they all die miserable deaths as I grow old with you.’”
Perhaps, for the first time in a long while, Jackie Sandler won’t have to wish death to critics, who are praising the special. Because by stripping away all the absurd accoutrements, the comic seems to have remembered what made him funny in the first place: being himself.