Adam Sandler threatened to make “the worst movie ever” after his 2019 critical darling, Uncut Gems, didn’t get nominated for any Academy Awards. It’s tempting to believe that Hubie Halloween is the result of that threat. Only, we know it wouldn’t have been possible to both cast and shoot an entire movie between when the Oscar nominations were announced (mid-January) and when the entertainment industry was shut down due to COVID-19 (mid-March). (Plus, we know it was shot between July and September of 2019.)
That means that instead of being a prank by Sandler on the Academy, Hubie Halloween is just your average, run-of-the-mill piece of absolutely abysmal dreck.
Sandler’s choice of films like Uncut Gems reminds us, as he does every three or four years, that he has good taste and is capable of steering his career in a smart direction. That makes movies like Hubie Halloween even more befuddling. It is as though he is willfully suppressing his better instincts to deliberately spit in the eye of his audience, or demonstrate further disdain toward the creative liberty granted him under his ongoing deal with Netflix. Or maybe it’s just that the only audience he wants to cater to is his far less discerning one.
Sandler plays the film’s title character, Hubie Dubois, a man-child living in Salem, Massachusetts. That’s the historic city home to 17th century witch trials, and a current Halloween mecca if ever there was one. Hubie is – well, however old Sandler is – yet he still works the grocery store deli and takes pride in his role as a sort of “Halloween monitor.” That means he prevents toilet paperings and makes sure trick-or-treaters don’t take too many lollies from the bowls left on the porches of unattended homes. Because of this benign role, as well as his host of personality eccentricities that stunt him in childhood, he is the target of year-round scorn from literally every other person in the town, who hurl a fusillade of objects at him as he rides around town on his bike.
All except one woman, a popular girl from his high school class, Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen). Violet has always defended Hubie and held a soft spot for him, and as an additional sign of her goodness, she’s the foster parent to a number of orphaned children. (This allows her to be the mother of two characters played by Sandler’s own children, Sadie and Sunny, who look nothing like her.) Her only apparent mistake was marrying the Salem chief of police, Steve Downey (Kevin James), whose mullet and beard are in competition for his most impressive facial feature.
This particular Halloween is set to be a strange one. A former Salem resident has escaped a mental institution and is heading home to create whatever havoc he can. But he may not be the only menace lurking around town.
Fans of The Waterboy, an early sign of the depths of caricature to which Sandler could sink, may start out favourably disposed toward Hubie Halloween. Hubie seems to be a descendent of Bobby Boucher, not described outright as someone with mental limitations, but for all intents and purposes that type of person. Sandler plays Hubie with an almost unintelligible accent that comes from jutting out his jaw and speaking with a lisp. The words slur together so much that you’d be tempted to turn on the subtitles, if you cared enough.
No one has ever accused Sandler of going for realism in films like this, but his portrayal is so out of sync with the realistic performances of the other actors that it’s impossible not to be distracted by it. He worsens things by having an extremely low threshold for being spooked, which results in him doing the “Sandler scream” – an extremely loud sound coming out of that clamped jaw rather than a soft and indistinct one. He consistently gets scared by his own Halloween decorations and innocuous everyday activities like opening a door to find someone standing on the other side. It’s exceedingly tiresome.
Because Hubie is so hated by everyone in the town (except his mother, June Squibb, and the aforementioned Violet), it’s impossible to take a character seriously when they actually like him. Bowen’s broad performance seems like a parody of the saint she’s playing, and would be one of the key elements you’d look at if considering this that hypothetical prank on the Academy. So it puts us in the strange position of loathing Hubie for his idiotic collection of tics and exaggerations, loathing Violet for ostensibly being in love with such a person, and loathing everyone else in town for being so relentlessly cruel to a person with a big heart and a mental disability.
Laughs? Nope. Every joke plays like the parody of a joke. You’d be tempted to parse the layers of self-reference, like “it’s funny because it’s not funny,” but that’s not there either. The film lacks even the basic understanding of how to construct the narrative toward traditional payoffs. Kevin James’ character should be the obvious villain here, the ex of Hubie’s love interest, but the script does not provide him with the usual dickhead behaviour that character displays. In fact, more often than not, it seems like he’s trying to do the right thing, and when abuse is heaped on him, he looks sad and pathetic. We join him in wondering why he deserves it. Maybe the people of Salem are indeed just that awful.
What is most troubling about Hubie Halloween is the list of truly funny people who have decided to enable this abomination as a favour to Sandler. A list should suffice. Appearing in this film, in roles ranging from cameo to main supporting character, are the likes of Ben Stiller, Maya Rudolph, Tim Meadows, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Michael Chiklis and Kenan Thompson. It feels like they’re the victims of a Sandler prank more than anyone else, except perhaps the audience.
You can’t of course use something like Uncut Gems as a point of comparison when examining Hubie Halloween. Interesting performers cannot and should not be tied to one mode. But Hubie Halloween is the type of film that disqualifies a performer from being considered interesting, especially when he’s also the writer and producer. If Sandler ever does make good on that prank to the Academy, it’s hard to see how he can make a movie worse than this one.