‘That’s My Boy’ is an ominous sign for Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler stars in "That's My Boy."
(Tracy Bennett / Columbia Pictures)

This past weekend, Adam Sandler jumped the shark.

His new film,"That’s My Boy,"made a meager $13 million at the box office, a disastrous opening for a comic whose films had routinely opened in the $30-million to $40-million range.

To say that the top brass at Sony are in a funk over the dismal opening would be an understatement. After all, his previous film, 2011’s"Jack and Jill,” was considered a disappointment when it did only $25 million in its first weekend.

Popularized by comedy writer and Howard Stern cohort Jon Hein, the phrase originates with the 1977 “Happy Days” episode when Fonzie, seen water-skiing in swim trunks and his signature leather jacket, jumps over a shark that looks like a dime-store reject from"Jaws.” Although “Happy Days” had earned considerable TV viewer affection, the shark episode signaled that the sitcom had run out of ideas and had begun to resort to gimmickry.


The fact that even Sandler’s most loyal followers stayed home is an ominous sign that the 45-year-old comic is finally too old to pull off his trademark frat-house humor. “That’s My Boy” seemed like an attempt by an aging star to stay relevant. Of course, that is exactly what happens when you jump the shark.

Shark-jumping remains a popular water-cooler way of gauging the downhill slide for TV shows, whether it’s the growing disenchantment with the increasingly generic"American Idol"or the storm of ire provoked by last June’s season finale of"The Killing."But it’s now also a broader way of assessing the decline of any prominent pop-culture figure or franchise. And that’s where Adam Sandler comes in.

For years, Sandler has made a steady stream of knuckleheaded comedies that enjoyed a remarkable — some would say baffling — run of success at the box office. In the comedy business, the Sandler brand was a blue-chip stock, almost always bringing in $100 million in the U.S, and sometimes even more overseas.

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Sandler was beloved by comedy audiences, who reveled in his simple-minded characters the way 1930s-era moviegoers adored the low-brow hijinks of the Three Stooges. But with “That’s My Boy,” an R-rated comedy in which Sandler plays a deadbeat dad who wreaks havoc at his strait-laced son’s wedding, the spell has been broken.

For Sandler, the key element in “That’s My Boy’s” shark-jumping is its air of desperation. It feels like the cynical — not to mention doomed — bid by a comic hoping to connect with a generation of younger fans who never knew the baby-faced smart aleck who pushed the envelope in ‘90s comedies like “Happy Gilmore” and “Billy Madison.” In that sense, Sandler most closely resembles Mick Jagger, who at nearly 70 has turned into a shark jumper himself for his preening attempts to act like a rock star a third his age.

Jumping the shark isn’t limited to actors. After the astounding success of “The Deer Hunter,"Michael Cimino was the most celebrated filmmaker in America. But he crashed and burned in 1980 with “Heaven’s Gate,” which was at first just an epic bomb, but after the publication of Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” became a noose around Cimino’s neck, labeling him forever as a filmmaker undone by a mammoth ego and wanton extravagance.

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Flops are sometimes just flops, unless they become entangled with issues of outlandish excess, arrogance or bad judgment. Renny Harlin’s career as a Michael Bay-like action director skidded to a halt after 1995’s “Cutthroat Island,” not so much because the film died at the box office, but because Harlin had cast his wife, Geena Davis, in the lead role.

Ben Affleck’s career as a movie star has never recovered from 2002’s “Gigli,” which would’ve been just another routine bomb if it hadn’t been for the tabloid crush of gossip involving his romantic relationship with costar Jennifer Lopez. Madonna has been in the doghouse with moviegoers (and critics) ever since she had the chutzpah to star in a remake of “Swept Away,” a beloved art-house classic that she managed to turn into a dreary potboiler.

Athletes jump the shark just as often as actors. Manny Ramirez was a fan favorite for years, but he’s never been forgiven after being suspended in May 2009 for violating major league baseball’s drug policy. With Brett Favre, the shark-jumping was more complicated, brought on by a string of Hamlet-like retirements and returns to action (and some messy sexual harassment allegations) that transformed him from a beloved gridiron warrior to an all-about-me prima donna.

Politicians jump the shark with alarming frequency. Jimmy Carter was forever tarred by his infamous 1979 “malaise” speech, which became a symbol of his ineffectual, school-marmish approach to the presidency. Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumped the shark right in the middle of his run for the Republican presidential nomination when, during a televised debate, he said he was hell bent on eliminating three federal agencies, but — oops — couldn’t remember the third one.

Jumping the shark is a definite occupational hazard for comic talents, whether it’s Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell. For some comics, one unbelievably awful movie does the trick, as with 2008’s “The Love Guru,” which obliterated all the goodwill Myers had earned after his “Austin Powers” successes. Sometimes, as with Murphy, we’ve had to weather so many dreadful duds that it’s hard to say exactly where the shark-jumping occurred; was it with “Pluto Nash”? “I Spy”? “Norbit”? Or was it"Imagine That”?

The good news for Sandler is that all sorts of luminaries have ignominiously jumped the shark, yet somehow revived their careers. After he lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962, the press wrote Richard Nixon’s political obituary; six years later, he was elected president. After a series of much-derided flops, including “Waterworld,” “The Postman” and “Dragonfly,” Kevin Costner was unceremoniously tossed into movie star jail, only to revive his career as a grizzled character actor, culminating in the surprise success of the recent cable TV series “Hatfields & McCoys.”

Costner’s strategy — essentially swimming as far away from the scene of the shark jump as possible — is a shrewd career move that could work for Sandler as well. When it looked as if Tom Cruise had jumped the shark after leaping off Oprah’s couch, the actor, almost as an act of contrition, took a wildly outrageous character role in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” which wiped the slate clean, reminding us of his acting chops and his ability to make fun of himself.

After the debacle of “That’s My Boy,” anything Sandler could do to make fun of himself would be a good start. It might distract us from making fun of him, which is exactly what happens when someone jumps the shark.


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