Depending on whether you love or hate Adam Sandler movies, you can hold old-school talent manager Sandy Wernick at least partly accountable for having encouraged his career. Wernick signed Sandler at age 22, three years before “Saturday Night Live” snatched up the young comedian and made him a star, and Sandler has remained loyal ever since — so much so that he’s built his latest sketch-stretched-far-past-the-breaking-point, “Sandy Wexler,” as an in-joke homage to his longtime manager.
Sandler repays those years of service not with a big sloppy kiss of a movie, but rather a feature-length roast (though the word “sloppy” still applies) — one that amplifies the man’s nasal voice and off-putting fake laugh into an elaborate caricature of a hopelessly pathetic bottom-feeder. The roast approach isn’t a bad way to go per se, except that somewhere along the way, this project’s too-many-cooks left out the most important ingredient: They forgot to include the laughs.
There was a time when “feature length” for an Adam Sandler movie meant something in the ballpark of 90 to 100 minutes (even his career-best performance — the stunted man-child in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” — runs a tight 95 minutes). Then Judd Apatow got ahold of him for “Funny People” and Sandler’s movies started to balloon well beyond two hours. Often feeling like the director’s-cut version of itself, “Sandy Wexler” runs an epic 131 minutes, and though it was never really funny to begin with, the jokes keep coming even through the end credits, during which “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge delivers an extended prank call in-character as the two MTV misfits.
The joke there (such as it is) concerns the fact that Sandy is so clueless, he thinks Beavis and Butt-Head are real kids, and is willing to endure ridicule and humiliation in order to sign them. But the meta-joke is that “Sandy Wexler” takes place somewhere in the mid-’90s, at a time when new-fangled cell phones were the size of your shoe, the Atkins craze excused an all-pastrami-and-hotdogs diet, and bumping into Arsenio Hall at the local newsstand might qualify as a star sighting.
Those were the days when people actually went to the newsstand — in this case, to pick up a copy of Daily Variety (although the trade paper has since gone glossy, look for the since-retired tabloid version among such now-defunct magazines as Newsweek and George). How strange it feels to experience a swell of pride while watching a bad Adam Sandler movie — and make no mistake, “Sandy Wexler” is a bad Adam Sandler movie — when Variety factors into one of the film’s funnier scenes, as Sandy is shown reading a copy of the paper on a rollercoaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
While one of his clients (Sandler’s actual wife, Jackie) goes out for a commercial audition, Sandy agrees to babysit her kids (real-life daughters Sadie and Sunny Sandler), taking them to a theme park where he stumbles across Courtney (Jennifer Hudson) playing the ugly duckling in a dreary musical act (bonus gag: later, we see that fellow “American Idol” discovery Clay Aiken has taken her place). Instantly smitten, Sandy attempts to sign her on the spot, adding her to a client list that reads like a carnival sideshow — including a ventriloquist (played by Kevin James), a contortionist, and a daredevil (the real-life Sandy Wernick began his career exploiting an Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt gone wrong).
But Courtney is genuinely gifted, and the plot of “Sandy Wexler” concerns how ill-prepared its title character is to steer someone with real talent to success: He nearly ruins the recording of her white-hot, Whitney Houston-esque single, “Mr. DJ” (the best thing to come of this mess), and almost-botches her meeting with producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. There’s also a squirm-inducing subplot about Sandy’s love life in which we’re supposed to root for him and Courtney to end up together — though she’s got aggressive competition from the nearly-widowed rich cougar next door (Jane Seymour), who attempts to seduce Sandy in front of her hooked-to-life-support husband (played by none other than Wernick himself).
While the humor mostly misfires, there’s a certain pleasure to be had simply from spotting the celebrity cameos in “Sandy Wexler” (the big payoff being the reveal of ex-client “Alfred,” whose defection taught Sandy the lesson that he should never get too close to the talent he represents). The movie opens at what we presume to be Sandy’s memorial service, as some two or three dozen famous people — ranging from Paul Reiser to Chris Rock to Vanilla Ice — share fond memories of the legendary talent manager. As the montage drags on, we come to realize how a collection of real-life anecdotes would be far more amusing than the overlong recreation that follows.
Showbiz is full of such unsung heroes, footnote-to-Hollywood figures who often provide excellent fodder for documentaries in their own right (such as “Get Bruce,” about the “Hollywood Squares” regular who punches up Oscar presenters’ jokes backstage, or the forthcoming portrait of oversexed bartender-to-the-stars Scotty Bowers). And yet, though “Sandy Wexler” comes from a place of genuine affection, it feels oddly cruel. As depicted, Sandy isn’t just oblivious, but borderline incompetent.
“An agent is business, but a manager is family,” he insists, and though Sandy genuinely loves each and every one of his clients, he’s constantly lying to them as their careers suffer by association with this loser. Such undying loyalty isn’t necessarily a good thing, which could also be said for the way Sandler rewards those who’ve stood by him the longest.
The project was overseen by Steve Brill, who met the comedian on “Going Overboard” and first directed him in 2000’s “Little Nicky.” The third film in an eight-picture deal with the quality-ambivalent folks at Netflix, “Sandy Wexler” predictably accommodates another off-color Rob Schneider cameo, this time appearing in brownface as Sandy’s Iranian landlord.
Still, if audiences didn’t love Sandler, Netflix never would’ve signed him to make so many movies for them. And the comedy community clearly adores him as well: How else to explain all the genuine legends who show up for cameos (even if it only demanded a single day’s work, it looks as if they all agreed to show up on the same day for Sandler’s benefit)? But the real love-fest here is between Sandler and Sandy, and though it’s not necessarily a flattering portrait, the movie drives home an important lesson: Hollywood agents make the deals, taking 10% of what a star earns for their services, while talent managers give 110% of themselves on behalf of their clients. Despite its shortcomings, “Sandy Wexler” serves as a tribute to that kind of dedication.