Happy Hanukkah to all our Jewish readers around the world. On this penultimate "crazy night", I thought it appropriate to look out a slab of Hanukkah Hollywood, but the pickings are thin, save for this 2002 offering from my sometime fellow Granite Stater Adam Sandler. Born in Brooklyn, Sandler grew up in New Hampshire and was discovered in an LA comedy club by Dennis Miller, who recommended him to "Saturday Night Live". Eight Crazy Nights was a flop on its first release but has become something of a cult film, and is in its way a significant cultural artifact: a big-budget multiplex animated gross-out comedy about a Jewish holiday. Only in America!
It takes its title from a lyric in a comedy sketch Adam Sandler first did on American TV three decades ago. Surrounded by Christmas standards, he decided to create the first Hanukah song - or, if you prefer, Channukah, it being the first major American holiday without an agreed spelling (the Presidents Day/Presidents' Day/President's Day variables are a punctuation dispute). Anyway, Sandler's song includes the attitudinal line that "instead of one day of presents we get eight crazy nights". Other than that, all I recall from it is basically a laundry list of famous Jews not generally known as such:
David Lee Roth lights the menorah
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas and the late Dinah Shore-ah...
There was nothing much else in the way of Hanukkah pop, although a couple of decades back, just before he bombed out in the Iowa caucuses, the Utah Senator and songwriting Mormon Orrin Hatch disclosed to me that he was writing a Chanukah number. I don't know what became of that, but, in the absence of Orrin, Sandler's song, by default, got an enormous amount of airtime from culturally sensitive radio stations, grateful for a Hannukah anthem the goyim could get a handle on. I think I first heard it on WQEW New York, in between Perry Como's "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and Peggy Lee's "Winter Wonderland". Having become Mister Hanukah, Sandler then parlayed his hit into Hollywood's first mainstream animated musical Chanukkah movie. I've no idea why they even bothered to release this picture in Belgium or Germany. No other culture but America could have produced this film: not because it's a mainstream movie about a Jewish religious festival, but because its view of that festival, as just another pretext for an all-purpose secular holiday celebration anybody can be a part of, is so American. Indeed, Seth Kearsley directs, Rob Schneider narrates and A. Film and Yowza! Animation animate the picture consciously in the style of those perennial Rankin-Bass Christmas specials also built around songs: Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman and, of course, the now reviled Rudolph. The animation is affectionate and reassuringly familiar. Coming soon: 'Twas The Night Before Ramadan.
The story opens in Dukesberry, New Hampshire, where a thirtysomething criminal alcoholic (which struck me as a comparative rarity back in 2002, but is now near universal in the state) steals a snowmobile, attempts to total the town ice sculptures, and is delivered by the district court into the care of a septuagenarian basketball coach. Aside from the fact that "Dukesberry" seems to be the most Jewish town in New Hampshire other than the once popular Jewish summer resort of Bethlehem (seriously), Mr Sandler's first animated feature is, at least initially, in conventional heartwarming holiday mode.
Alas, after becoming Mister Hanukah, Adam Sandler decided also to become the Hollywood comedy star most willing to lower himself a little further down the toilet on each outing. A couple of decades back, he was releasing a film a week, which meant that, if you took a month's vacation, you returned to find Sandler's comedy had managed to evolve - or de-evolve - in fairly spectacular ways. The big set-piece in Eight Crazy Nights involves a PortaPotty (or PortaLoo in Britspeak) being kicked down a hill. The old codger inside scrambles from the wreckage covered in human excrement. He gets hosed down, but it's winter, so the fecal matter freezes on him.
A herd of deer come along, spot the human lollipoop and start licking it, until they figure out what exactly that elusive taste is. There may be a place for a joke like this, but probably not in a mainstream family holiday animated musical. And it's in trying to ride the two horses of the first Hanukkah cartoon and just another Sandler fecalfest that Eight Crazy Nights winds up falling between two, er, stools. The director Seth Kearsley subsequently revealed that he'd wanted to cut the sh*t-licking deer, but it "tested" really well with the focus groups, so they changed their minds and kept it in. Which may have something to do with the kind of person who agrees to be part of an Adam Sandler focus group.
The Gospels aside, there's really only one surefire Christmas plot, and Mister Hanukah lifts it shamelessly. That's the one where the Scrooge/Grinch figure has his cold heart thawed, preferably by a cute child or a lame oldster or, in this case, both. The cartoon realization of Davey Stone, the "33-year-old crazy Jewish guy", looks just like Sandler (who was then 36). Like Sandler, he grew up in southern New Hampshire but, unlike Sandler, never got out. He hates Channukkah, hates holidays, hates his neighbors. When first we meet him, he's belching at a Chinese waiter, humping his car in the street outside and mooning at Christmas carolers.
The grunting misanthrope is forced to move in, for not entirely persuasive reasons, with the Mister Magooey elderly four-foot basketball coach with a nails-on-blackboard annoying voice (Sandler again). Did I mention the old-timer lives with his bald sister? Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart, now a single mom, moves back to town. The old guy has one dream left in his life of disappointments - to get enough votes from his neighbors to win the special patch presented to the town's "all-star" citizen at a gala holiday banquet. The clock is ticking and you know where we're headed: Mister Fart'n'Puke will find redemption somewhere around dessert at the town dinner.
There's nothing wrong with predictability per se. Personally, I prefer holiday-movie predictability to Adam Sandler predictability. So Eight Crazy Nights lavishes vast amounts of time and visual detail on the scene in which the opposing basketball pair lose their bet and have to eat the visibly sweaty jockstrap of the fattest guy in the room. That leaves the upbeat Hollywood ending looking even more artificially tacked on: it's so obvious everyone's having a gas laboring over the gross-out gags that the sentimental message seems even more perfunctory than usual. As the narrator puts it, "Just when you're starting to like Davey, he goes and has a butthole relapse."
That's more or less what's happened to Sandler: the critics adored him in Punch-Drunk Love, but his fans missed the bodily fluids. This was what he figured was a commercially sound butthole relapse, as befits the only man to rhyme "Hanukah" with "colonic-ah". Eight Crazy Nights is light on the first, heavy on the latter, a fable of redemption that paradoxically confirms the protagonist is really best-suited to self-degradation. I don't recall a lot of A-list Hannukah features in the years since, but I do remember at the time a novel Jewish conspiracy theory that the picture was badly made by anti-Semites deliberately to kill the incipient Chanukah movie genre. In that sense, it worked.
~Dennis Miller has gone from discovering Adam Sandler to discovering Mark Steyn. To see how that works out, please check them out in Pennsylvania and New York early in the New Year.
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