Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Rather Moving Surprise

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - As I await the return of a friend of mine so we can go see Superman Returns together, yesterday I decided to catch up on a movie that I had missed last weekend.

So I decided to check out, of all things, Click (**½ out of ****), the high-tech high-concept comedy starring Adam Sandler. And you know what? It was a little better---certainly more moving---than I had thought it would be.

Last week, I had made some statements in a blog entry about how I thought Click, based on the trailer, looked like a return to form for Sandler as a popular comedian: sophomoric humor based on adolescent rage and aggression that tries to turn sappy and "adult" at the end by showing Sandler's usual persona trying to grow up. I could tell Click was going to attempt more dramatic territory by the end. What I didn't expect was that it would turn into a variation on Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (recently crowned the most inspirational movie ever made by the American Film Institute)---and that, for most of the time, it would actually work.

I'll admit: I was mildly interested in seeing Adam Sandler's newest film. Over the years, I've basically fallen in line with all of the professional critics who bash his films, who give off the impression that they are above his adolescent humor and macho aggression. And, being that I certainly want people to think of me as "highbrow," I've usually fallen in line with the critical hype against him, dismissing comedies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore as simply childish entertainments that no "thoughtful" viewer would dare enjoy (although I did enjoy The Waterboy). So I suppose I was interested in Click to see if my more intelligent, free-thinking current self would somehow think differently of Sandler and his brand of humor.

On the basis of Click, I think I can understand where his popularity comes from. Yes, the humor in the film's first hour is sophomoric and vulgar, but buried underneath the gross-out gags and broad sex jokes is a distinct sensibility: that of a perverse Everyman male adolescent who likes to secretly lash out at those above him as far as income and class go. For that reason, Click features a running gag with Sandler's harried architect father Michael Newman showing his resentment towards a neighboring kid whose family seems to have everything---a new bike, a new RV---that Michael wants. In a way, it's the kind of anti-establishment fratboy humor that made National Lampoon's Animal House immensely popular in the late 1970s.

Click adds a bit more to Sandler's usual persona, though, with its high-concept gimmick: the idea of a remote control that can control a man's universe (thus, universe-al remote control---get it?). When Morty (Christopher Walken, playing yet another one of his endearing flakes) gives Michael the remote, Michael uses it for his own selfish ends: fast-forwarding through arguments and family dinners, trying to go back to the past to dish out old forgotten memories, etc. The elaborations on the one-joke premise are often funny and sometimes inventive, but on a deeper level, it's a little sad---how Michael seems to want everything without really working for it---in a way that the movie itself doesn't seem willing to explore...

...until its second hour, that is. This is when Click, surprisingly, becomes a comic nightmare in the vein of the Clarence sequences in It's a Wonderful Life, as the remote begins to fast-forward through years of his life and he begins to slowly realize what he's truly missing in his current lifestyle. Years of going through his life on autopilot has caused his wife (Kate Beckinsale) to leave him, caused his father (Henry Winkler) to leave this earth without knowing how much Michael truly loved him, and so on. Click might have settled for a comforting lesson at the end of the film, but this isn't Big Daddy, and the writers, Steven Koren and Mark O'Keefe (who also wrote Bruce Almighty), goes into progressively darker waters before it climaxes with a scene where Michael runs out in the rain---attempting to impart a lesson to his son---falls on the ground, and seemingly dies.

All of this should feel sappy and corny and even a little ruthless and manipulative. And granted, there are a few small moments when you might feel that Sandler and director Frank Coraci are pushing the boundaries of good taste in their tearjerking. (At one point, Michael uses the remote to go back to the moment he saw his father before he died, and he's so disappointed at the careless way he treated his father that he can't help but cue back the moment when his father selflessly says to him that he loves him; he repeats it so often that I was almost tempted to cry out, "Yeah, we get the point; Michael treated him like nothing and he regrets it!") But, remarkably, those missteps are few and far between: instead, I found myself rather moved by the filmmakers' conviction in carrying off these Capra-esque scenes. Call me naive or a sap, but I found myself touched by Click.

Not to suggest that this is some kind of comic masterpiece, mind you. It doesn't quite go the distance in deconstructing the Sandler persona as Paul Thomas Anderson tried to do in the absurdist (and awfully mannered and precious) Punch-Drunk Love: it doesn't reveal the deeper layers underneath Sandler's surface hostility and sexism as much as it seems like Sandler wants to. The puerility still remains, and while some of it is amusing, some of it simply seems like Sandler himself on autopilot. (I could have done without Rachel Dratch's Alice, for instance, a secretary at Michael's workplace who always asks Michael if she can go to the bathroom.) But I appreciated the film's attempt, and I thought it worked more often than it failed.

As for Sandler himself: well, he's still not an actor of a wide range, and he's not intelligent enough to convince us that a person like Michael Newman could actually become a big-shot architect at any business. But I think his sincerity and innocent charm as an actor makes up for quite a bit in Click: at the end, you believe that Michael Newman wholeheartedly wants to change. He's far from a great actor, but he has proved that he can be a sensitive one before: his performance in James L. Brooks' underrated Spanglish---maybe his finest to date, Punch-Drunk lovers be damned---had an emotional authenticity and thoughtfulness that he occasionally shows here.

Most of the professional critics have pretty much conformed to tradition in bashing Click (the last time I checked, it's rating was 30%), and maybe they're not wrong in being offended at what they consider its emotional vulgarity in daring to ape It's a Wonderful Life and risk sentimentality. Maybe, at my young age, I simply have a weakness for sentimentality that will eventually harden into cynicism as I grow older. But if it isn't overly insistent, and if it's done with integrity and feeling, as I think it is in Click, I'll have no trouble falling for it without apology. Certainly, a movie like Click---a movie that's a little more ambitious than it at first seems---deserves more than a pan on autopilot from most critics.

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