Whatever else you can say, Happy Madison Productions make money. The Longest Yard cost $82 million and raked in $158. Click made $137 million after a cost of $70 million. Anger Management did 133 for 75, Mr. Deeds did 126 for 37. Dipping into the Hap-Mad high-concept comedies, The Animal did 55 for 22, and The Benchwarmers did 57 for 19. To be fair, not all Happy Madison productions churn out profit: Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo broke even at $22 million, and Little Nicky lost $40 million. Still, these guys flipped $16 million for The Master of Disguise into $40 million at the box office. How does SandlerCo do it?
Happy Madison Productions is the Toys R Us of the movie industry: They sell cheap crap at discount prices. Hap-Mad trades on brand recognition at the high end (Sandler himself) and the low end (Rob Schneider), apportioning costs appropriate to the strength of the brand. Anger Management is a Nintendo Wii loss leader: Sandler gets you in the theater, you rent it again because of Nicholson (Sandler and Jack! And Sandler plays the sane one?! I just have to see that again!). Schneider’s The Benchwarmers is more of a Polly Pocket doll coated in lead paint.
This is moviemaking purely as industry, without the faintest whiff of art. Of course, you don’t slap down 8 bucks for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry for the subtle cinematographic stylings of Dennis “Beverly Hills Ninja” Dugan. But shouldn’t a major studio have a little more pride in its craftsmanship? In Mr. Deeds, Sandler rushes into a “burning building” to save an old woman and her cats, and the only signs of fire are clouds from a nightclub-quality smoke machine and single flaming box of Special K. Six years later, Hap-Mad technology hasn’t changed. In Chuck and Larry, Sandler and Kevin James are firefighters who open the movie by running into a burning building. Rather than invest in a little special effects or professional staging, what do the ad wizards at Happy Madison decide? They back-project a fiery inferno, so awkwardly staged that the guys who superimposed Daniel Sunjata into the 1977 World Series for “The Bronx is Burning” could have gotten a good gut-laugh out of it.
It’s not just the production values, or that the film seems shot from a camera whose tripod is bolted to the ground. Chuck and Larry presents a golden opportunity to explore the waning tide of homophobia in America, the middle class panic over rising health care costs, and the macho culture of NYC firemen post 9/11. Instead, Happy Madison fashions the script into a cheap plastic dollhouse of mainstream stereotypes. Instead of Pink Sparkle Fairy Barbie, we get something very similar in Musical Loving Gay Son with Fabulous Detachable Pink Headband and Incredible Gymnastic Splits action! Hap-Mad even goes retro for Mickey Rooney Offensive Charlie Chan Impression with Comic Overbite and Funny Asian Lisp for the Rob Schneider cameo.
It’s hard to imagine that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s script treatment included an extended slow-mo sequence of Ving Rhames bending over to pick up dropped soap in a firehouse shower, or a credits sequence featuring Lance Bass covering George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.” Rather, the script has been Sandlerized for your protection with safe, familiar Hap-Mad gags about drunken hobos falling down and Sandler punching whiny beta-males.
More frustrating is the existence of a very good central joke: As Chuck and Larry burrow deeper into this charade, they become just like an old married couple. There’s some interesting scenes about fidelity (Sandler must give up his dozens of Hooters girls to help raise a family), friendship, and responsibility—but the movie abandons the relationship to use the last half hour to apologize for previous hour’s cavalcade of gay stereotyping (like “gaying up” the house by buying Wham! posters).
Several scenes glimpse the serious satire underneath the “gaying up” jokes, but nobody actually making the movie seems to get them. At “Bring Your Dad to School” Day, Kevin James is met with stoned silence when he tells his son’s fourth grade class about firefighting. He talks to another dad about the upcoming scout troupe meeting, but is told that he’s too immoral to take the kids camping. James wallops him right there in the school hallway, while the kids gather around chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” In a better movie, that is a perfect metaphor for the political fight over gay marriage: “Defense of Marriage” amendments as a petty name-calling schoolyard brawl. Problem is, nobody in the movie seems to notice, and we go right back to the “Try my brownies, they’re fabulous!” mockeries of the “gay” fourth grader.
The climactic scene opens with Chuck and Larry walking to city hall, parting a sea of protestors on both sides: half decrying homosexuality itself, the other half decrying the decrying. The scene harkens to Payne and Taylor’s first screenplay together, Citizen Ruth, in which a drugged-out pregnant woman (Laura Dern) is taken in by a pro-life family who exploits her baby for their cause, and then by a pro-life group who wants to abort her baby for their cause. Ruth slips out the backdoor of an abortion clinic, leaving behind the mobs screaming at each other in front. Neither side gives a damn about Ruth, only how she could advance their cause.
Chuck and Larry face the same dilemma: Neither side cares much about Chuck and Larry and their ridiculous and immoral bureaucratic nightmare, but only how the public spectacle benefits each sides’ cause. Citizen Ruth ends with pointed satirical moment, the woman sneaking away while the bickering goes on. Chuck and Larry ends with Dan Akroyd giving an earnest speech evoking “The Great Mayor Giuliani” and pansexuals(?), commissioning a calendar of shirtless firefighters to benefit horny gay guys. It’s the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” ending for people who think there’s something wrong with that, but don’t want anybody to think they think there’s anything wrong with that. Or, as Chuck and Larry’s lawyer, improbably played by Jessica Biel, says, “Gays and lesbians have not been fighting for these right for forty years to be made a mockery of” in a movie that mocks gays. What’s the difference, as long as it turns a profit?