Dugan, Sandler defy critics en route to success

Pair's sixth, seventh films together due in 2011

Dennis Dugan doesn’t read reviews. He stopped looking at them a long time ago, believing that when it comes to type of comedies he makes with Adam Sandler, critics simply don’t get it and tend to be “more harmful than helpful.”

Still, Dugan hears things. When the last Sandler-Dugan collaboration, “Grown Ups,” opened in June, Dugan heard the movie had earned an abysmal aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then, he says, he waited for the feedback from the people who matter to him — moviegoers.

“I don’t want to have any feelings associated with any criticism except for when I go to Variety on Tuesday and see how we did on the weekend,” Dugan says. “When I see that ‘Grown Ups’ did $271 million worldwide, I say, ‘OK. That’s the review that I want.’?”

Sandler and Dugan have made five movies together as actor and director. They’ve also finished filming another one — the romantic-comedy “Just Go With It” co-starring Jennifer Aniston, due Valentine’s weekend — and are more than halfway through shooting yet another comedy, “Jack and Jill,” in which Sandler plays both gender roles in the title.

“Dennis and Adam have a collaboration that has been remarkably successful,” says Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad. “I think they complement one another. They both have great comedy instincts and talent and an understanding of how to tell stories people care about.”

With seven titles, including the latest three that will have been completed in an 18-month span, the Sandler-Dugan partnership is one of Hollywood’s most enduring. And, in haughtier circles, one of its most ignored. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese or Denzel Washington and Tony Scott garner publicity for their frequent work together, Sandler and Dugan forge ahead, making comedies possessing a variety lost on most observers.

“When we did ‘Happy Gilmore,’?” Dugan says of his first movie with Sandler, “I told his management and agent that I thought Adam was more than a comic. He was an actor. I told them we could make a goofy movie, but if they wanted to make it more real and have Adam as a real presence, we could do it that way, too. Because I could see there was way more to him than what he’d been able to show.”

Dugan isn’t alone in thinking that. Just a few years after making modestly budgeted goofball comedies like the Dugan-directed “Happy Gilmore” and “Big Daddy,” along with the low-humor, high-B.O. smash “The Waterboy,” Sandler found himself cast as the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” Anderson tapped into the anger that fuels many of Sandler’s best comic roles, but he had a simpler reason for wanting to work with him.

“I just cry with laughter in his movies,” Anderson told an interviewer in 2000.

The Dugan-Sandler movies fully embrace the laughter-is-the-best-medicine approach, though each film has offered a variation on Sandler’s talent. “Big Daddy” (1999) focused more on Sandler’s sweet side. “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (2007) teamed him with Kevin James as a pair of firemen faking a gay marriage in a farce that the Village Voice called “tremendously savvy in its stupid way” and “as eloquent as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and even more radical.”

The following year, the action-comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” inspired New York Times film critic A.O. Scott to write his own over-the-top superlative, calling the movie “the finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy” he had ever seen. Scott was being facetious, but he did circle back to the film’s intentions, noting, “the movie’s radical, utopian and perfectly obvious point is that the endless collection and recitation of political grievances is not funny at all.”

If the midlife-crisis comedy of “Grown Ups” feels like something of a retreat in the wake of “Zohan” and Sandler’s edgy, perceptive lead work as the ill comedian in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” Dugan says there’s no harm in that.

“We make these movies so people can go to the theater, check their brains under the seats and sit back and get rid of their cares and woes for a couple of hours,” Dugan says. “I wish that critics just enjoyed laughing. I’d like to go to a critics dinner one year and put them at ease. My wife’s a shrink, so she could go with me. Maybe at the end we could sing ‘Kumbaya’ together, and then I’d go back and make another comedy.”

More articles from Billion-Dollar Filmmaker: Dennis Dugan:
Quiet hitmaker | Duo defies critics | In the pipeline | Dugan scores with sports | At work with Dugan | Filmmaker recalls favorite moment