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In 2019, Adam Sandler delivered one of the best performances of the year in what was the best movie of the year. The Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems is a remarkable piece of art that is essentially a cinematic translation of the word “stress,” and there is no discounting that part of what makes the work so impressive is that it is a total deviation from Sandler’s normal output. Akin to previous turns like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, the material took Sandler far away from his comfort zone and his turn as Howard Ratner is legitimately something special as a result.
Less than 10 full months later we now have the actor’s latest, Steven Brill’s holiday-centric Hubie Halloween, hitting Netflix, and as a follow-up last year’s pulse-racing thriller it’s hard not to look at it as a disappointment. It would be inaccurate to say that the film isn’t without its funny moments, as there are bits and lines that get real laughs, but it also finds Adam Sandler doubling down hard on his old shtick, and save for the inclusion of some cute Easter eggs it just feels tired.
Very much not stretching himself creatively, Sandler’s titular Hubie Dubois is basically his Saturday Night Live character Canteen Boy by a different name, with the big difference being that he carries around a thermos instead of a canteen. Like the SNL Boy Scout, he’s a well-intentioned dimwit who is subjected to ridicule from practically everybody in his life, but he’s steadfast in what he views as his duties to his community. Living in Salem, Massachusetts, he takes on the responsibility of being a Halloween monitor – roaming around the town in hopes of shutting down any hijinks or mischief.
Most of Hubie’s efforts are useless and stupid, serving to do little more than disrupt everybody’s good time, but on one particular Halloween night he finds himself on the trail of something much bigger, as a new neighbor (Steve Buscemi) moves in, an escaped mental patient comes to down, and people around town start to disappear.
Don’t go into Hubie Halloween expecting much in the way of story.
If that synopsis doesn’t make Hubie Halloween sound incredibly plot-heavy, I’ve done my job describing it, as narrative of any kind totally takes a backseat to attempts to squeeze out bits of funny whenever possible. While one would need a stopwatch to confirm, it feels like the majority of the movie is made up of scenes of Hubie going to a place, doing something goofy, and then getting mocked and ridiculed for it (there is a degree where it almost feels like a masochistic exercise for Adam Sandler).
Tangents are made seemingly with simple the goal of providing opportunities for members of the star-studded cast to get extra screen time, and while it pays off occasionally, there are parts that don’t fit at all – the prime example being a romantic subplot between characters played by Noah Schnapp and Paris Berelc that feels like it was jammed in just to lower the median age of the cast and appeal to younger viewers.
Adam Sandler’s supporting cast does the majority of the comedic heavy lifting.
With Adam Sandler basically just doing the same thing over and over (you’ll get exhausted watching him let out his trademark goofy scream when characters try to scare him), the real laughs are left to be acquired by members of the supporting cast, and in a few cases they do a great job. Steve Buscemi, who has a long history with Sandler including Billy Madison, The Wedding Singer, and Big Daddy, is a true scene-stealer and the best part of the film, with an unfolding arc that gets better and better as more is revealed about him. Likewise, Tim Meadows and Maya Rudolph are great as a married couple that loves messing with Hubie, but also have some serious relationship issues to work out. It’s these performances that keep Hubie Halloween afloat – though ultimately it’s not quite enough.
Cute references to Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and others aren’t enough to totally excuse Adam Sandler’s worn out material.
On top of everything else, there is a kind of strange duality at work in the Netflix comedy, as while the film does an unfortunate job showcasing the star’s exhausted gimmick, it also has a funny way of making you remember and appreciate the golden years with frequent references. The very first scene of the film features the return of Ben Stiller’s overly-aggressive nursing home attendant from Happy Gilmore, and it sets a particular tone that is carried throughout the film. Julie Bowen, who played the female lead in the golf comedy, has reunited with Sandler for the first time since the 1990s playing the romantic interest, and she even once again has double-V initials. Multiple references are made to Billy Madison, The Waterboy, Hotel Transylvania, and more, and as is always the case with Easter eggs, they feel like fun rewards for audiences paying attention. It’s a diversion that works in a movie that has plenty of diversions that don’t.
After the daring leap off the high dive that was Uncut Gems, Hubie Halloween is a return to the kiddie pool for Adam Sandler, and while it’s not exactly surprising, it is most definitely frustrating. The movie may surprise people who go in with basement level expectations, but it’s also not exactly heralding a new comedic era for the star.