There are bad movies and then there are shitty miracles. In bad movies, something goes awry: The script is convoluted or the third act is a mess or Anthony Hopkins is playing a black man for some reason. In a shitty miracle, everything goes awry. It’s not a matter of one sorry element dragging the rest down; it’s every terrible component amplifying the awfulness of everything else. These shitty miracles represent the perfect storm of bad ideas and miscalculation. Everything must line up perfectly for a shitty miracle to occur.
That’s how the world usually works. Within the world of Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison empire, however, the King can simply decree that a shitty miracle occur and send his minions scampering to make it so. Sandler has the rarest and most incredible form of power in Hollywood: He makes careers.
The golden touch of Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production company can transform the most Rob Schneider-like schlub into an international box-office sensation. It worked for Schneider. It worked for professional sad-sack Kevin James. It didn't quite work for Allen Covert or David Spade, but that didn’t keep Sandler from turning his star-making powers to another ace supporting player from the Happy Madison roster: Nick Swardson, a stand-up comic and popular bit player best known for playing a screamingly effeminate roller-skating hustler on Reno 911!
Every motion picture put out by a studio represents a massive undertaking. Studio films are not written in one day then shot the next, though heaven knows it often feels that way. Months of planning and preparation are involved, followed by weeks of shooting and then months of post-production and editing. Even the most modest studio film involves millions of dollars.
Bucky Larson represents an even greater undertaking, since the core of the film—the script—was partially provided by one of the richest and most powerful men in Hollywood. Adam Sandler commands upwards of $20 million a film. His time is more valuable than yours or mine. Yet in a gloriously misplaced act of generosity, he chose to spend it collaborating on a screenplay about a man with the mind of a child, the haircut of Prince Valiant, and the penis of a mosquito. That’s what this kingmaker, this titan of industry, chose to do. That’s how he chooses to wield his enormous power.
Swardson had to realize that Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star represented his one shot at being a proper movie star (at least in the Rob Schneider sense). This was 8 Mile time. This was his one shot. This was an opportunity for Swardson to tell a story near and dear to his heart, to communicate something profound about the world we live in and the imperfect people who populate it.
The tale Swardson chose to tell did not resonate with audiences or critics, in the sense that it was universally reviled and one of the biggest commercial flops in recent memory. In its opening week, Bucky Larson grossed less than $1.5 million, despite playing on 1,500 screens. To provide a sense of perspective, Kevin Hart's stand-up film Laugh At My Pain grossed almost $2 million despite playing on fewer than 100 screens.
Commercially speaking, Kevin Hart in front of a microphone was 20 times more appealing to audiences on a per-screen basis than Nick Swardson with the weight of the Happy Madison machine behind him. Critically, Bucky Larson somehow managed to fare even worse. Bucky holds the formidable distinction of scoring a rare 0 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Happy Madison probably envisioned getting negative reviews; it possibly even anticipated a tidal wave of mockery. But universal disdain was a bit much even for Happy Madison.
Bucky Larson was panned so viciously that my D- ranked on the generous side of critical appraisals. Scratch that: My D- qualified as insanely generous. Yet Bucky Larson continued to inspire in me a morbid fascination. There was something about the depth and scope of its miscalculation that I found hypnotic. I had found a true shitty miracle. So exactly seven days after I watched Bucky Larson in a nearly empty theater, I returned to an even emptier theater to re-experience it for the second time in one week. Because this is the life I have chosen for myself—or rather, this is the life that has chosen me.
Bucky Larson opens with establishing shots of our protagonist’s Iowa hometown: images of cornfields wafting peacefully in the breeze, a man being pulled over for drunk driving, and climactically, a man smearing peanut butter all over his genitalia, then gesturing lustily to a pack of hungry goats. Cue credits! These shots serve two purposes: They introduce the setting as a grotesque burlesque of small-town Midwest, and they establish the filmmakers’ contempt for their characters and their audience.
We then meet our protagonist. He’s toiling happily as a clerk at a grocery store until manager Curtis Armstrong inexplicably picks a fight and decides to fire him for no discernible reason. This establishes a major theme: random cruelty as comedy. A certain daft sweetness is a core part of the Happy Madison brand, but Bucky Larson is a nasty piece of work. Nearly everyone outside of the protagonist’s inner circle is unfathomably, overwhelmingly cruel to him. Perhaps that’s not fair, though, for screenwriters Sandler, Swardson, and Allen Covert have come up with a character so innately irritating that it’s understandable how strangers might treat him with jarring cruelty.
Swardson’s gleeful dullard is even a source of sadistic amusement to his equally backwards buddies. At movie night in one of his ostensible pals’ basement, Swardson’s friends encourage him to masturbate in front of them. They giggle and point as Swardson, who has never masturbated before and has no concept of what it entails, grabs his cock with both hands and flails wildly as he desperately tries to emulate his friends’ frenzied self-pleasuring.
That’s not the creepy part. No, the creepy part is what comes next: Swardson sees that the performers onscreen are his parents. I can reassure you, however, that Swardson doesn’t ejaculate while watching his parents have sex. That would be weird. No, Swardson’s takeaway from watching his parents fuck while duded out in ’70s finery is that his destiny is to follow in their footsteps and become a porn star himself. Bear in mind that Swardson has lived three decades in a pre-sexual state. Adolescence has passed him by, along with even the fuzziest notion of what sex, love, masturbation, film, and pornography entail.
In Swardson’s mind, acting is synonymous with sex and masturbation. After all, his parents were actors and they had sex on camera. So at an audition for a commercial for macaroni and cheese, Swardson immediately lunges for his cock with both hands and engages in frenzied, monkey-like masturbation to the horror of everyone assembled. However, he makes a positive impression on a director played by Mario Joyner, who serves as his entrée into a porn world ruled by sneering alpha male Stephen Dorff.
At a diner, meanwhile, Swardson receives his quota of daily abuse from a haggard old waitress before younger waitress Christina Ricci takes a shine to the buck-toothed young man she finds doing Mad Libs and eating a giant chocolate chip cookie in the bushes after leaving work. Ricci used to mean something. Like Winona Ryder or Zooey Deschanel, she wasn’t just an actress: she was an archetype. She chose offbeat roles in challenging projects like The Opposite Of Sex, Prozac Nation, Pumpkin, Monster, Penelope, and Black Snake Moan. These films weren’t all good, necessarily, but they were different. They boasted ambition and personality. In that respect, her appearance here feels like a final and conclusive concession of professional failure. In Bucky Larson, Ricci isn’t giving a performance. She’s giving up.
In Ricci’s big Oscar speech, she explains to Swardson that, like him, she too once had a dream: to become a glamorous, successful waitress. But her dreams of being a big-time waitress died when she poured hot soup on an old lady who had to be choppered out of the restaurant to an emergency burn ward. In a move as daring as it is idiotic, this scene is played completely straight. Nothing in the writing, acting, or direction indicates that we’re meant to process this speech as anything other than an important revelation from a central character.
In a smarter film, this scene might have registered as a wickedly satirical lampoon of hokey screenwriting contrivances. In movies like this, waitresses invariably aspire to do so something glamorous. Upward mobility is the name of the game. Every dog-walker wants to be a movie star. Every wage slave secretly dreams of making it as a singer or going to pastry school in Paris. The notion that a waitress’ big dream is to be a more successful waitress is actually somewhat clever, but the execution is so muddled it’s unclear whether this plot thread is even meant to be satirical.
The score treats every scene with Ricci like Dawson’s Creek, layering on the acoustic guitar, wimpy strings, and maudlin sentimentality. It’s altogether possible that the great session musician Waddy Wachtel scored Bucky Larson without ever realizing it was meant to be a comedy. He could be forgiven for assuming he was watching a miserablist drama about a pathetic man-child’s ongoing humiliation at the hands of sex-crazed sadists.
Swardson makes it to the pinnacle of his profession by starring in pornographic films unlike any in existence. Instead of subscribing to the tedious and outdated “attractive people fucking” paradigm of porn production, a down-on-his-luck skin-flick merchant played by Don Johnson decides to substitute something even more appealing: a virginal spazz ejaculating great gallons of come in every direction upon seeing naked breasts. This newfangled style of pornography makes Swardson the biggest and smallest star in all of porn and a world-record-setting winner at the Adult Film Awards.
The night of his triumph, Swardson loses his virginity to Ricci after Ricci makes a homemade condom for Swardson’s tiny penis out of the end of a plastic straw. I should note that this sequence, like the big speech, is played completely straight, as a moment of connection and tenderness between ostracized outsiders rather than as a gag. At breakfast the next morning, a coked-up Don Johnson explains to Ricci that God put Swardson on earth to stick his minuscule penis inside porn skanks and it would be selfish for her to deny him his destiny. A visibly distraught Ricci does what any good-hearted, simple-minded person would do in her case: defer to the self-interest of a coked-up pornographer. Who knows better about what’s best for Swardson than a professional parasite with a vested interest in keeping Swardson dependent upon him? What doe-eyed innocent wouldn’t leave her soulmate in the care of such a man?
Ricci nobly sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of the greater good. Verily, she is Christ-like. In an altogether reasonable development, Ricci stumblingly tells Swardson that now that she’s lost her virginity at 30 or so, it’s time to really explore her options and fuck a whole bunch of random dudes. Johnson eventually takes pity on Swardson and tells him the real reason Ricci left him, but, as we will see, Bucky Larson isn’t quite done having cruel fun at our protagonist’s expense.
Bucky Larson fails on the most primal fundamental level. It doesn't just fail as a comedy. It fails to be a comedy. Oh sure, there’s stuff here people are theoretically expected to laugh at or experience with something other than revulsion mixed with morbid fascination; but erratic behavior, shouting, and dumb wigs do not a comedy make. It represents a nadir for the Happy Madison brand, a weirdly sour, hermetic and ragingly misanthropic bit of juvenilia and an enduring embarrassment for everyone involved.
Director Tom Brady does such a terrible job establishing a consistent tone that Bucky Larson sometimes feels more like a second rate Todd Solondz film or a half-assed remake of Chuck & Buck than an upbeat Happy Madison crowd-pleaser. Bucky is creepy where it should be innocent, mean where it should be big-hearted and generous, and terrified and repulsed by sex where it should be naughty and fun. The juxtaposition of wholesome innocence and pornography would have been hopelessly played out even if Orgazmo hadn’t covered similar territory more than a decade ago. As a final insult, Bucky Larson closes with Swardson’s giant buck tooth stretching out to spell “The End,” a fittingly repulsive end to both one of the ugliest, most misguided comedies in recent memory and Swardson’s ill-considered career as a cinematic leading man.
Failure, Fiasco or Success: Failure