Tuesday, August 11, 2009



The Writers

Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler

Why It's Here

I have to be perfectly honest with all of you. I was dreading having to write this one. Most of the films on my list, even if they are not pictures with sterling critical reputations and mantelpieces groaning with screenwriting awards, at least have their defenders, people who will trumpet their screenplays as fine examples of the cinematic writing craft, if not out-and-out masterworks. Most of them received reviews which, if not exactly glowing, were nonetheless mostly positive, and they are films that one can espouse an appreciation for among the film world's intelligentsia without having to worry about having your taste or basic understanding of the medium brought into question. None of these claims can be made about Happy Gilmore, a rowdy golf-links comedy that was a moderate commercial success upon its initial release, but was basically dismissed by the majority of critics as an agreeably mindless diversion at best, a rock-stupid nail in the comedy coffin at worst. The film has an average score of 31 on Metacritic.com (indicating "Generally negative reviews"), and Adam Sandler, who stars in the title role and co-wrote the film's screenplay with his longtime Saturday Night Live collaborator Tim Herlihy, was a Golden Raspberry nominee for Worst Actor for his performance here. In short, this may be the first time that Happy Gilmore has found its way onto anyone's list of the best anything. Ernest Lehman, who was the most recent screenwriter honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars, gave us the screenplays for such classics as North By Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success, and West Side Story. His work does not make an appearance on my list of my 101 Favorite Screenplays. Adam Sandler's does. And that sound you just heard was the door slamming on my reputation as a film reviewer.

But honesty is indeed the best policy, and within the realm of the slapdash, star-driven "moron comedy" that made such a huge resurgence in the late '90s, there was almost no film that made me laugh harder and more often than Happy Gilmore. Sandler and Herlihy harnessed the unique nature of Sandler's dominant comic persona, a bizarre blend of milquetoasty loser, overgrown man-child, and aggressive borderline-psychopath, and paired it with the dignified serenity of the centuries-old game of golf. The result features as many laugh-out-loud moments as any film released in what was, admittedly, not a dynamite period for American film comedy. But the film is not just a disjointed collection of stand-alone jokes, as Happy's climb from the dregs of amateur hockey obscurity to the heights of professional golf fame is surprisingly compelling. We find ourselves genuinely rooting for Happy as he claws his way to the top and faces off against his nemesis in "the big match" to settle the entire story once and for all. Granted, if you didn't already know the outcome of the big match before you even started reading this review, you've apparently never seen a movie about sports. But as with all sports films, the journey is the destination, and Happy's is more entertaining and engaging than most.

The film begins with Happy failing yet again in his latest tryouts for his local amateur hockey squad. He's got a fierce slapshot and "a lot of intensity"…so much intensity, in fact, that he's the only player in the history of hockey to ever take off his skate and try to stab another player with it. He's not nearly as skilled as skating on those skates, though, and after yet another rejection, he arrives home to find that his kindergarten-teacher girlfriend is leaving him to his futile dreams and grubby apartment. Even his impromptu apartment-intercom serenade of Exile's "Till the Night Closes In" (complete with him lovingly licking the intercom speaker) doesn't win her back. The cherry on top of his turd sundae of a life plops down when he finds out that his beloved grandmother (Frances Bay), who raised him after his father was killed by a fast-flying puck, is about to lose the house he grew up in for failure to pay back taxes. The movers clearing out his grandma's old junk come across a set of golf clubs, and Happy, after being challenged to a long-ball contest by the moving men, finds out much to his surprise that his massive hockey shot translates well to the little white ball. He uses his newfound skills to hustle a few suckers at a local driving range, but hockey is still where his heart is…until Chubs Peterson (Carl Weathers), the pro at Happy's local golf club, convinces him that with a little skill, he could make the shot at the big time that Chubs never got. Not because he's black, of course, but because of the alligator that bit off his right hand, forcing him to wear a not-at-all-convincing wooden substitute. Realizing big-money golf tournament purses are his one ticket to get his grandma's house back, Happy joins the pro tour, but he's got a lot of obstacles to overcome. There's his general lack of understanding of the game of golf, from his complete inability to putt to his boorish behavior at the normally staid country clubs that host the tournaments. There's his volcanic spurts of rage, which result in him punching bystanders, screaming torrents of obscenities when putts fail to drop ("Suck my white ass, ball!"), and getting into a fistfight with game show host Bob Barker during a pro-am tournament (Barker, by the way, hands Happy's ass to him). And there's Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), the arrogant top pro on the tour, who has never won the Tour Championship, and who is not about to let his biggest chance be taken from him by some "freak sideshow clown". "You better watch out," he warns Happy, "'Cause I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast." Happy's giggly reply: "You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?"

And so it goes. In case you hadn't already gathered from the very mention of Adam Sandler in this review, a good deal of the humor in Happy Gilmore is juvenile, pointlessly surreal, or flat-out disgusting. Happy's caddy is a homeless man named Otto (Allen Covert), who is prone to cleaning his nasty underwear in the course's ball-washing machine. When Chubs exhorts Happy to find his "happy place" to calm his rage on a golf course, Happy imagines a bucolic Eden with bottomless pitchers of beer, his grandma rolling in dough…and a midget dressed in a cowboy costume riding a tricycle. A montage of Happy's past odd jobs, shot in the style of home movies, includes Happy using everything from a gas-station hose to a construction traffic cone as a substitute phallus to wave around and jab in co-workers' ears. In other words, Noel Coward this ain't. Indeed, Happy Gilmore is arguably the most uneven screenplay on this entire list. For every joke that hits home, there is one that falls flat, and the duds are momentous ones. If nothing else, the film taught me that Lee Trevino is as ham-fisted a comedian as he is magical with the clubs. The nadir of the film's comedy comes from Donald (SCTV alumnus Joe Flaherty), an obnoxious, needy fan hired by Shooter to heckle Happy and throw off his game, finally resorting to hitting him with his old VW bug to try to get him out of the tour championship. Though the notion of a golfer getting run over mid-tournament (and still finishing!) is an amusing one, Donald doesn't have one funny line, and the amount of screen time he takes up and the importance he is given to the plot puts a major lag in the film's second act.

But the jokes that do hit are so effective and land frequently enough that Happy Gilmore emerges as arguably the finest comedy to come out of Sandler's SNL-era cast. Some of the funnier moments are admittedly barnside-broad, as when Happy gets into a rollicking brawl with the one-eyed alligator that stole Chubs' hand years ago. But there are also a few moments that are funny in a much subtler way, as in the scene where the director of the pro golf tour (played by the film's director, Dennis Dugan) speaks with his publicity director, Virginia Venit (Julie Bowen), about Happy's latest on-course outburst. This entire scene is underscored with the network-TV playback of Happy's tirade on a nearby television, a torrent of bleeped-out profanities that runs about a minute and a half and is capped off with Happy's bellowed "piece of monkey BEEEEEEP!" Even Happy's perhaps-inevitable-in -retrospect courting of Virginia, the first person on the tour who really believes he can make it as a golfer, is played for some good laughs. His ever-so-charming opening line? "My girlfriend's dead, you know. She fell off a cliff and was killed on impact." Later, when Happy and Virginia go ice skating together, he challenges her to nail a slapshot from center ice, and if she loses, she has to give him a kiss. It's a sweet setup…until she nails the shot dead in center net, causing Happy to exclaim, with his customary eloquence, "Holy shit!"

One of the nicest things about Herlihy and Sandler's screenplay is that it does not insist upon making Happy Gilmore the only funny character or the only element of his universe played for laughs. I cannot stand it when a comedy takes place in a recognizably real universe…except for one character who is on comedy overload, carrying the film's entire comic burden on his back and forcing the rest of his cast members to just stand around looking embarrassed while he heaves fistfuls of shtick at the audience (I wasn't a huge fan of most of Jim Carrey's early comedies for exactly this reason). Perhaps owing to Sandler's somewhat more laconic comedy style, Happy Gilmore constructs an entire comic world around Happy, with each character bringing their own personae and styles of humor to the equation. There's everything from Otto's grungy slob comedy to the mellow self-improvement sendup of Kevin Nealon as an admiring golfer who gives Happy on-course advice ("Doing the bull dance. Feeling the flow. Working it. Working it.") to the downright disturbing interludes with Happy's grandmother, who is forced into a nursing home after losing her house and who finds herself at the mercy of a sadistic orderly (a pre-megastardom Ben Stiller) who forces his elderly charges to knit black-market quilts and throws anyone who complains out onto the grounds for landscaping duty. Rather than clatter against each other and create an unwieldy comedy crazy quilt, these characters weave nicely together to create consistent humor with different pitches and modes. Herlihy and Sandler seem to understand that if you only have one way to laugh at a movie, sooner or later that kind of laugh will dry up on you, and you'll be left with nothing. They wisely don't let that happen, and it's something of a house style that has carried forward into other films they've written and produced together, all of which have an ample supply of comic characters and situations to carry the humor forward.

In one of Herlihy and Sandler's boldest strokes, they give some of the film's biggest laughs to their antagonist. The weak link of many mainstream comedies is that they do not offer a strong enough force for the hero to come into conflict against. The villains in these films are usually bland and forgettable, exceptionally generic in their evil designs against the hero, and incapable of generating a number of laughs sufficient to justify the screen time the films waste on their duplicitous machinations. That is not the case with Shooter McGavin, who is possibly the funniest character in the entire film. All of the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the modern pro athlete rolled into one smug, brilliantined package, Shooter treats everyone who comes into his orbit with the same subtle contempt. Upon first meeting Virginia, he demeaningly asks her to get him a Pepsi, then adds, with a little head cock that's apparently meant to be seductive, "Diet." He bores his fellow pro golfers with an overchewed array of cocky hand gestures and stale, repeated jokes (we twice hear him blasting a fellow golfer for spending "more time in the sand than David Hasselhoff"), and he seems to regard his soon-to-be coronation as the Tour Championship as both his birthright and a foregone conclusion. So when Happy comes along with his populist appeal and his radically long drives, Shooter sees a threat that he is helpless to defeat, and he pours hilarious invective upon both Happy ("Yeah, how'd he finish? Dead last? Yeah, he had a good day, though, thanks.") and his fans ("Damn you people! Go back to your shanties!"). In his funniest moment, he complains to the tour director about the fans Happy has brought to the golf course, particularly "two fat biker people" he saw having sex in the woods off the seventeenth hole. "How am I supposed to chip with that going on?" Shooter splutters. A lot of credit must go to Christoper McDonald, who presents a nonpareil display of put-upon bluster as Shooter, but it's Herlihy and Sandler's raw materials that allowed him to knock this character out of the park.

Of course, as with all well-told stories, it is not just the external antagonist that Happy must defeat to achieve his goals. Happy's biggest problem is not Shooter and his arrogant attempts at sabotage, but his own instances of self-sabotage, the way he lets his sometimes psychotic emotional outbursts jeopardize his career and potential happiness. We can see from just our brief glimpses of Happy on the ice at the film's outset that his furious temper has contributed to the scuttling of his hockey career, and early on, it looks like the same might happen to his burgeoning identity as a professional golfer. Golf is a world that (the antics of John Daly notwithstanding) generally prides itself on decorum, class and centuries of time-honored tradition, and from the jump, Happy does everything he can to puncture that with his explosions of aggression and violence on and off the course. He does everything from breaking sand trap rakes and throwing them into the woods (he tells Virginia he didn't break it; he was "just testing its durability") to threatening Shooter McGavin with a broken beer bottle. All of this behavior makes him a singular and popular figure within the golfing world of the film, but it also threatens to shoot down his career when he is unable to get enough control of his anger to put together a decent short game and hit a respectable putt. The breaking point comes after Happy's fight with Bob Barker gets him suspended from the pro tour. He manages to support himself off the course by signing a lucrative endorsement contract with Subway (a clever usage of the ubiquitous product placement rife in contemporary sports), but at this point, at last, money is not enough to satisfy Happy. From the start, he's been saying that he is only playing golf to make money; when he wins his first tournament, he even makes plans to remove the golfer from the top of his trophy and replace him with "a little hockey guy". But after the Barker suspension, he realizes that it's his pride on the line…his pride in his golf game. So he goes to Chubs, throws himself at the old golfer's mercy ("I was wrong, you were right. You're smart, I'm stupid. You're very good looking. I'm not attractive."), and gets to work on finding his "happy place", learning to putt, and building his game into a force to be reckoned with just in time for his Tour Championship showdown with the odious Shooter. Granted, none of this is virgin territory for sports pictures. The great raw talent who needs only technique to be "the best", the disgraced former champion pulled out of mothballs to shape his protégé, even the death of the trainer before the big match, giving the young tyro an added incentive for winning the big one…it's all been done before, and perhaps better than it's done here. But just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it can't be deployed effectively, and by playing to the strengths of the underdog sports genre, Herlihy and Sandler undergird their laughs with a solid narrative bedrock.

Many students of comedy have unfavorably compared Happy Gilmore to another links-based comedy starring former Saturday Night Live cast members, namely 1980's Caddyshack, written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Douglas Kenney, and Harold Ramis. Indeed, it would be naïve to assume that Happy Gilmore, with its raucous on-course antics and snobs-versus-slobs underdog-triumph narrative, was not influenced by the earlier film. For me, Happy is the superior picture, but this is admittedly for intensely personal reasons. You will not see many comedies from the late '70s and early '80s making their way onto my list, mainly because most of these films, which earned R ratings for their sexual content and nudity, wrap their humor in a smug, self-congratulatory smuttiness that I find intensely off-putting. For every gag in Caddyshack that hits home squarely, as with much of the Rodney Dangerfield / Ted Knight material, there's a moment where the film seems to be high-fiving the characters just because they got to see some tits. It puts us in the position of rooting for the characters to catch a glimpse of female flesh; it's dehumanizing to the female characters and, I think, a bit creepy. Granted, Caddyshack is not the worst culprit of this style of comedy (that "prize" goes easily to 1982's Porky's, arguably the worst comedy I have ever seen), but for me, it just keeps me from enjoying the material as much as I'd like to. The PG-13-rated Happy Gilmore has a few marginally smutty moments, but Herlihy and Sandler almost always undercut the crassness with something just plain silly, as when Happy autographs the breasts of a hot young blonde…then is immediately confronted by a blue-haired grandma who opens her housedress and asks him to sign her low-hanging goodies (much to the film's credit, Happy doesn't get grossed out by this, but cheerfully obliges, cementing Happy as a true golfing man of the people). It's the difference between being emotionally invested in a character and simply observing their behavior. Seriously, does anyone really give a damn about Michael O'Keefe's horndog caddy character in Caddyshack? And for anyone who wishes to make some claim that Happy Gilmore is just bargain-basement crudity and Caddyshack represents a more elevated form of comedy, I have one word for you: zootie.

It seems to me that Happy Gilmore has proven to be an unusually enduring film for its genre. The multiplexes of today are chock-full of here-today, gone-tomorrow bonehead comedies, but this is one that folks still seem to watch regularly and recall with fondness. The film is thirteen years old now, and yet you can still easily find it in the comedy section of your local video store. Can you say the same about 2006's Let's Go To Prison? Or about College, which came out around this time last year? Happy Gilmore has hung in there as a favorite that viewers still return to and laugh, and I think a tip of the Callaway cap goes to Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler for giving their throwaway comedy surprising staying power. I don't know if people will still be watching it a hundred years from now, but whenever I am watching it, trust me, I'm laughing a lot.

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