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Jeff Simon

Adam Sandler, Tom Hanks at the movies – as opposite as can be

Jeff Simon

Money is the answer.

But then one might sagely observe "isn't it always?"

The winning question in this game of box office "Jeopardy" is "Why did Paul Thomas Anderson – arguably the most serious and formidable American filmmaker of his generation ("Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood," "Magnolia") – swoop down on a suddenly ambitious Adam Sandler to make, arguably, Sandler's best movie by far, "Punch-Drunk Love"?

Easy. Moronic infantilism may be Sandler's cinematic stock-in-trade in his smash comedies, which, deservedly, get no respect. But no one in Hollywood could look down on his box office.

So if Sandler has always secretly yearned for something that vaguely resembles respectability – something loftier than Billy Madison-Happy Gilmore reassurance that puerility will always make comedians wealthy – here was one of the most admired filmmaking talents of 2002 tapping Sandler on the shoulder and asking him to make "Punch-Drunk Love" with him.

Not only with him, but with the kind of actors whose presence proved, at the time, it was a serious project indeed – Philip Seymour Hoffman, for instance, and Emily Watson.

No more boffo box office bilge like all those throwaway comedies directed by Dennis Dugan (a former TV actor and director of "The Rockford Files," etc.), this was serious movie biz.

Except that Anderson, in hyping it before opening day, gave the game away. No, he wasn't doing it to raise Sandler's professional status no matter what the underestimated box office behemoth might hope. Anderson wanted a piece of Sandler's action.

Here's the Anderson quote from the time to take to heart:

"He always makes me laugh. ... It's Saturday night and if I wanna watch something funny ... or I'm sad ... I'm popping in an Adam Sandler movie. The last thing I would wanna do is watch 'Magnolia' or 'Breaking the Waves.' So I'm looking for Sandler and thinking, 'God, I wanna get a piece of that. ... I wanna learn from that dude.' What is it that's so appealing about it to so many people? I think he's a great communicator."

Anderson, bless his wallet, admitted flat out "I wanna get a piece of that." By God, he got it. In exchange, Sandler got his best and most serious movie and a bump in his reputation.

Actually, Anderson notwithstanding, Sandler was the movies' great noncommunicator in the childish roles that made him a star in emotional diapers. That's precisely why his adult imitation of 8-year-olds' speech patterns were so loved by a young audience enjoying the box office power and glory of being mostly young and male.

With that experiment in quality (impressively) out of the way, Sandler tried making movies again with serious a Hollywood director like James L. Brooks ("Spanglish") where the subject was marriage to Tea Leoni. Other than the greatest fried egg sandwich ever shown on a movie screen, the onscreen results weren't much. The film lost $35 million, making it the comedian's biggest bomb.

Jack Nicholson – who memorably on one TV award show pretended to talk out of his posterior a la Jim Carrey – got his turn at bat for a piece of Sandler's action by co-starring with him in "Anger Management."

Something truly new is about to happen at Christmas: Sandler is going to be in a movie by the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny, directors of "Good Time" with Robert Pattison). Few filmmakers are more indie and New York than the Safdies. In "Uncut Gems," Sandler plays a New York diamond merchant and gambler. It's a high-energy audience favorite, thus far, which stands to benefit Sandler, at long last, as much as it benefits the Safdies.

What's happening here isn't "Hollywood" like all those other films. The milieu is more pure – New York Jewish, eminently befitting the "Saturday Night Live" star who wrote and performed the definitive "Hanukkah Song."

Proof of Sandler's boost in prestige was the story on the cover of the New York Times magazine on Sunday. As if that weren't enough Sandler won the National Board of Review award for Best Actor on Tuesday. They gave an award too to the Safdies.

The exact opposite of Sandler's new movie among the better current megaplex fare is "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," an apparent box office natural in which another indie filmmaker (Marielle Heller) gets to rip off a piece of a box office monolith.

In this case, the box office monolith is Tom Hanks, the most respectable and beloved smash film actor in American movies. He's playing what was assumed was a "natural" role – Mr. Rogers, the sainted kids show host of public television.

In theory, it all seems too easy – virtual equals in sainted lovability, Fred Rogers and Hanks, occupying the same body and the same film.

Small problem. The casting seemed perfect, but it was far from it. Though both will always be distinguished by their lovability, they are, in essence, almost diametric opposites, also.

Rogers was unique everywhere on television. His voice was soft and, most importantly, his delivery was slow and parsed with a lot of pauses. He began his adult life as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 Pittsburgh. Clerical reassurance and sensitive sweetness were his norms.

Hanks was a young actor from Cleveland in the generation of "Saturday Night Live's" first stars – Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray. His native speech rhythms are fast and full of "just kidding" attitude. His first comedies were steeped in the wiseacre comedy of speeded-up earnestness. His first starring role was in the drag TV comedy "Bosom Buddies" with Peter Scolari.

I've interviewed Hanks. What makes him one of the most likable human beings you could meet is his natural good humor, which is both flowing and quick. Talk to him for just a few seconds and you find yourself immersed in an ironic joking tempo with him.

It's Hanks' nature, in other words, to be the antithesis of Rogers. Sweet irony vs. sweet sincerity. The sweetness is similar, but after that playing Mr. Rogers required hard work from the gifted actor.

You can see that hard work in almost every scene of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." Hanks is successful doing it because on top of his total likability, there is a phenomenally gifted professionalism that has done some prodigious things onscreen (for which, see the traumas of "Cast Away" and "Captain Phillips").

What you discover watching Hanks play Rogers is that your love for the character isn't nearly as automatic and natural as you assumed it would be when you walked in.

It is, nevertheless, triumph, however labored over. We meet Rogers in the process of being interviewed for a serious magazine. The movie was based on Tom Junod's interview with Rogers for Esquire. It's the interviewer's family dysfunction that, it seems, is healed by his proximity to Rogers.

It was Rogers' point, we're told, that every single child was unique and is not just a small version of an adult. It is the movie's point the interviewer is just a large version of a child for whom Rogers is the perfect psychological answer.

The key to "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is not to look too closely at the movie. If you take it for granted that it will please you mightily just to be so close to such benevolence onscreen, it almost certainly will.

But then that, too, was part of Rogers' point. He didn't "perform" on TV for an audience, he talked, every week, to one child at a time.

Watch the movie about him and it's just you and Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers. It's your own good cheer that will win everything completely.

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