Adam Sandler’s western comedy The Ridiculous 6 was in development at several major studios before becoming the first film in the comedian’s deal to make straight-to-Netflix features. Though most recent Sandler comedies might have benefited from a platform less intent on disguising glorified vacation videos as big-screen experiences, it almost qualifies as a shame that Ridiculous can only be seen on a smaller scale. While director Frank Coraci is a long-term practitioner of the Happy Madison house style (most productively with The Wedding Singer; less so with the likes of Blended), Ridiculous 6 is one of the most cinematic-looking Sandler comedies ever. Perhaps aided by fellow Happy Madison veteran Dean Semler (the cinematographer who shot The Road Warrior, City Slickers, and Dances With Wolves, in addition to Click), there are a number of scenes and even shots in Ridiculous 6 that are better-lit than large swaths of the Sandler filmography.
That’s not to say that the movie uses these shots for comedic effect. Ridiculous 6 doesn’t really spoof the visual language of Westerns; it barely bothers to pay homage, beyond a few push-ins to glowering stand-off faces and establishing shots of widescreen vistas. This is indicative of the movie’s noncommittal approach to mixing its genres. The story of six half-brothers sired by the same outlaw (Nick Nolte) banding together to steal enough money to save their father’s life sounds like the set-up to one of Sandler’s more ambitiously odd comedies like You Don’t Mess With The Zohan or Little Nicky. At very least, casting Sandler as a white kid raised by Native Americans gets him out of his suburban-asshole groove.
But it turns out that Sandler’s default middle-aged expression—half-lidded eyes, weary turned-down mouth—is appropriate enough for playing a noble-warrior role straight, and that’s more or less what he decides to do here. The good news is that this movie doesn’t feature many instances of Sandler making half-assed schoolyard taunts passed off as jokes. The bad news is that freeing himself of the joke-telling burden doesn’t seem to cheer him up. For a man who almost exclusively makes comedies, Sandler seems increasingly disinterested in the business of, well, making comedies. Based on its long development history, high production values, and sprawling cast, Ridiculous 6 appears to be some kind of dream project for Sandler—but if it is, it’s one he doesn’t appear all that psyched to be making.
There may be a trickle-down effect of Sandler’s straight-faced disengagement. Often in Happy Madison pictures, the most grotesque zaniness falls to a sidekick played by a lesser SNL alum like Rob Schneider. Here even Schneider, playing one of the six, is relatively subdued (beyond the fact that he once again helps himself to a different ethnicity, in this case to play a Mexican). The really silly stuff goes to relative newcomers to Team Sandler, like Taylor Lautner (as the dumb hick brother) and Jorge Garcia (as the heavily bearded and unintelligible brother). Terry Crews and Luke Wilson round out the cast, at least looking like they’re having a moderately good time.
That’s something The Ridiculous 6 has over Sandler’s more sour and curdled efforts: While it’s not consistently funny, and is as enamored as any other Sandler movie with making reference to its own limp running gags (including one about donkey shit), there is a certain inclusiveness that harkens back to his earlier work. There were reports during production of Native American actors walking off set after their complaints about demeaning or racist jokes were ignored; this may account for the final film’s relatively good-natured attitude toward its Native American characters, but it’s there nonetheless. The Apache tribe that raises Sandler’s character is depicted as a supportive and honorable, with many more of the jokes coming at the expense of white dudes. (When one Apache admits that sometimes the white man speaks the truth, it comes with the caveat that the rate of this happening is “like one in 20, 25 times.”)
In terms of comedy, though, the laughs are outsourced so far away from Sandler that many of them come from an entirely separate group of characters, an eyepatch-wearing gang of outlaws led by Will Forte. Sandler co-wrote the film with longtime collaborator Tim Herlihy, and it’s a little stunning that with a whole Old West playground at their fingertips, they felt it prudent to include a protracted scene where Sandler tries to kill a fly—played out mostly in a wide shot of a campfire at night, dubbed with dialogue. Even the moderately amusing bits, like an interlude with Abner Doubleday (John Turturro), inventing the rules of baseball as he goes along, come at oddly timed intervals, pushing the movie’s running time to the 120-minute mark. That’s before it gets to the aimless set piece sitting Vanilla Ice (as Mark Twain), David Spade (as General Custer), and Jon Lovitz down at the same table. Rather than creating real chemistry between the six, the movie takes a long time to gather them, then keeps throwing new characters in their way.
That The Ridiculous 6 runs just seconds shy of two hours represents perhaps its greatest commitment to its titular adjective; otherwise, ridiculousness is in short supply. As much of a relief it is to see that Sandler and company haven’t made an especially racist or bullying comedy, the movie also softpedals to a fault—the central gang can’t even be allowed to be genuine outlaws, forced to engage in some deeply faulty logic involving only stealing from “bad” people, like other outlaws… who just robbed a train moments earlier. (The line of thinking that says this counts as doing the right thing is not played for laughs.) As ever, Happy Madison has made what feels like a children’s movie. Not necessarily a movie for children, mind, but one made by them.