Like one of his on-screen tantrums, the Adam Sandler debate seems to go on forever. Is he a one-shtick pony, or a real actor with the long-haul goods? As with many polarized arguments the answer isn't A or B, but C, meaning: "Both," or "Both — maybe."
Before we get to "Click," a crass mixture of groin-kicking and tear-jerking and Sandler's latest probable hit, let's compare the star's rageaholic benders with, say, what Nicolas Cage comes up with in "Honeymoon in Vegas." There is more than one way to lose it and get a laugh. In "Vegas," which isn't much but has some wonderful things, Cage threw the funniest fits since the golden age of Gene Wilder, sometimes going for broke, sometimes indicating bone-deep panic with a mere, sudden, one-second adjustment in his volume.
Sandler doesn't traffic in nuances. Yet in Paul Thomas Anderson's controversial (and worthwhile) "Punch-Drunk Love," wherein Sandler was required to rethink his entire game plan, the man-boy who made his pile with "Happy Gilmore" and "Big Daddy" found new ways to release old demons. The film was too odd to entice his hard-core fan base, but whatever else he does or doesn't do in his career, Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love" transcended a comfortable realm of smirkiness and burrowed into something resembling a character.
On the basis of that film, along with "The Wedding Singer" and ... well, "The Wedding Singer," I'd say yes, Sandler can act. Among recently graduated "Saturday Night Live" alums, that puts him ahead of Rob Schneider though well behind Will Ferrell, the curly haired galoot and forthcoming NASCAR icon courtesy of "Talladega Nights." Ferrell may not have great range; he's at the mercy of his material. He couldn't redeem a moment of his 11th-hour cameo in "Wedding Crashers." Yet put him in a glass case of emotion, as he was, briefly, in "Anchorman," and his anguish becomes your glee.
Sandler works on audiences in a different way. His comic arrogance comes with a load of unearned smugness. Each generation has its lowbrow paragon of sentiment and venality, and like it or not, Sandler's ours. Sometimes he finds himself in a vehicle that makes a virtue of that mix, as he did in "The Wedding Singer." And sometimes he doesn't, as with "Click."
Sandler plays an architect beholden to his insufferable boss, played by David Hasselhoff, and neglectful of his surreally even-tempered wife (Kate Beckinsale) and no-fuss kids. Christopher Walken plays an angel, Morty, and he sports the hair and wardrobe worn by Harpo Marx in the infinitely depressing final Marx Brothers film, "Love Happy." Morty grants Sandler's character a magical universal remote, enabling him to view scenes from his past, or make the family dog relieve himself faster, or slo-mo a comely female jogger. The possibilities for hackneyed vignettes are endless.
Then director Frank Coraci's film gets deadly serious. Our hero fast-forwards himself into middle-aged workaholism, and before you can say " 'Cat's in the Cradle' by Harry Chapin" he learns he must reprioritize before it is too late. Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner play Sandler's parents, and they redeem what they can of "Click," although no one could salvage the ruthlessly sentimental later passages.
Aside from influences such as "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life," "Click" is so much like the Jim Carrey vehicle "Bruce Almighty" — Steve Koren and Mark O'Keefe worked on both — the writers could sue themselves for plagiarism and then write a screenplay about it. Even as I actively tried to put aside my own resistance to this one, I couldn't get past the stupid ethnic slurs, Sandler's trademark I'm-a-jerk-but-you-know-you-love-me callousness, the whorish product placement (Twinkies box! In close-up! For several seconds!) and the feeling that an unlikely comedy superstar is trying, desperately, to convince us he's the menschy middle-age equivalent of "Jenny From the Block."