Did Adam Sandler invent the Netflix aesthetic? Not the auteur-driven cinema that produced award-winning movies like The Irishman, Marriage Story, or High Flying Bird, mind, but the haze of half-assed streaming content caught somewhere near the intersection of movies, TV, and time-killing YouTube videos that defines much of the company’s output. Netflix may have formed its own fiefdom around this volume-based approach to entertainment, but Sandler’s Happy Madison production company has been making nebulously movie-like content since the streaming giant was exclusively renting DVDs by mail. Hubie Halloween, Sandler’s newest direct-to-Netflix comedy, isn’t less cinematic than, say, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry; given its elaborate production design and scary-movie overtones, it’s probably on the higher end of the Happy Madison scale. But with its parade of day-playing guest stars, candy-bar product placement, and family-friendly anti-bullying messaging, it’s as much a Sandlerverse Halloween special as a feature film.
As with any celebrity emcee, Sandler is obligated to play the hits, starting from title character Hubie Dubois, a put-upon man-child with a distinctively mumbly speaking voice, a doting mom (June Squibb), and a French surname—sound familiar? If The Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher amalgamated Sandler’s SNL characters Canteen Boy and Cajun Man, Hubie is basically just Canteen Boy dropped down an octave, armed with a gadget-laden thermos. Rather than supplying fresh H20 to football players, Hubie is a self-appointed safety advocate in his Halloween-obsessed hometown of Salem; he’s also an easily startled mark for scares, as everyone in town seems to know. Sandler, as he often does when working through funny-voice shtick, finds a bittersweet pathology by leaning into his weirdness. Hubie cares deeply for his hometown even though it conspires to frighten and vex him at every turn.
Hubie Halloween eventually sets its misfit hero off to solve the Halloween-night disappearances of several Salem residents, though it’s hard to tell when the actual story is kicking in because the movie’s overstocked supporting cast is so diffuse. Happy Madison mainstay Kevin James plays a local cop desperate to get Hubie’s alarmist warnings out of his purview, while Julie Bowen, former paramour of Happy Gilmore, returns to the fold as the good-hearted Vicki Vallencourt, er, Violet Valentine, whose kids bear suspicious resemblance to Hubie. (This is not a plot point. They are played by Sandler’s actual daughters.) The rest of the ensemble flits in and out. Some, like Steve Buscemi as Hubie’s friendly but shifty new neighbor, are expertly utilized. Others, like Maya Rudolph and Tim Meadows, are given material that does not meet their abilities. Everyone, from Colin Quinn with a handful of lines to Shaquille O’Neal delivering crucial and stupid exposition, is well within their comfort zone. (In what must have been a Herculean effort, or the result of a judicious hand in the editing room, Rob Schneider does not shout “You can do eet!”)
The sheer number of SNL alumni wandering around this version of Salem brings to mind the small-town fantasyland of backslapping vulgarity that Sandler conjured in Grown Ups 2. But while Hubie Halloween is less consistently funny than his last few Netflix movies, it’s considerably more amusing than the noxious just-plain-folks posturing of his worst work, especially for anyone who can get a repeated kick out of a mustachioed Sandler crying out in sincere distress at the most benign Halloween decorations and pranks. (This critic stands guilty as charged.) At times, it briefly resembles a cheerfully silly version of Copland, with Hubie in the Sylvester Stallone role of the wannabe lawman hung up on a lifelong crush. He’s even menaced by an easily agitated Ray Liotta.
Sandler, his co-screenwriter Tim Herlihy, and go-to director Steven Brill don’t have the patience to tease these elements out into a fresher variation on their preferred formulas, like The Week Of or Murder Mystery. The filmmakers haven’t tapped into a newfound talent for plotting out spooky mysteries, either: At one point, Bowen’s character casually and inexplicably suggests that Hubie go check out some information displayed on a gravestone just because it shares a name with someone he knows. It’s also difficult to tell whether the movie’s ultimate anti-bullying strategies represent a conscious reconsideration of Happy Madison’s usual suggested tactic of fighting bullying with cruel taunts and pitiless comeuppance, or just an obliviousness to those past tendencies. Yet there is something half-satisfying and pacifying about Hubie Halloween. In true content-blurring Netflix fashion, Sandler has essentially made a likable children’s movie to babysit undemanding adults.