Maybe “Uncut Gems” earned back some of the good will that Adam Sandler sacrificed at the altar of his lucrative Netflix deal and the laugh-free career lows that came with it (“The Do-Over,” “The Ridiculous Six,” “The Do-Over”). Maybe the world is such a hellmouth right now that 90-year-old June Squibb wearing a t-shirt that says “boner donor” is all it takes to feel a little better about things for a hot second. Or maybe — just maybe — Sandler’s latest streaming comedy is a step up from the paid vacation of “Murder Mystery” and the high-pitched swill of “Sandy Wexler.” I honestly don’t know. That might be a dereliction of duty for a film critic whose only job is to explain why the things they watch are good or bad, but anyone who’s sure of anything these days is just lying to themselves.
And what do words like “good” or “bad” even mean anymore? Sure, “Hubie Halloween” feels like it was written in the span of a single afternoon by two middle-aged men wearing gym shorts, but at least they included a scene where Ray Liotta refers to Sandler’s dim-witted hero as “Pubie Dubois” (a cruel nickname that spreads through Salem like a novel coronavirus through the White House). Sure, this dopey story about a Halloween-obsessed scaredy cat who teaches the jerks in his town about the true meaning of bravery or whatever is just a flimsy excuse to let Sandler and his friends make each other laugh on someone else’s dime/bottomless corporate debt, but at least it allows every American to fulfill their lifelong dream of watching Steve Buscemi play a werewolf.
And sure, the whole thing is ultimately as satisfying as the Charleston Chew that was always squished underneath all the other candy in your trick-or-treat bag as part of a George Soros-funded conspiracy to give every kid in this country a cavity (#LiberateTheSuburbs, #DentalDeepState), but at least Rob Schneider is only on screen for long enough to piss his pants and leave. (Rob, if you’re reading this on one of your rare breaks from tweeting demented MAGA talking points, please know the #DentalDeepState thing was a joke).
As confused as this movie can be in regard to its underlying message, “Hubie Halloween” has its heart in the right place: Here — in the most Happy Madison of fashions — is a little story about how bullies can be the scariest monsters of all. And while Adam Sandler comedies are so politically disengaged they make “SNL” cold opens feel like they were written by Howard Zinn, the inadvertent moral urgency at work in this one is the only semi-logical explanation I can think of for its impeccable comic timing. Not even the great, ever-undecided Ken Bone could be swayed by the script’s half-insistence that “nice matters,” but there’s an undeniable bipartisan genius to the introductory gag where Hubie pauses his morning bike ride to catch an egg that a kid hurls at his head, eats it raw “Rocky Balboa style,” and then scream vomits all over the street without taking his feet off the pedals.
This is the kind of movie where Sandler gets into two horrific cycling accidents in the opening five minutes, and both of them are funny; it’s the kind of movie that allows him to act his way through the pain, and find new humor in the pure-hearted resilience that runs through the mealy-mouthed, neck-scrunched, talking-at-the-floor morons he’s elevated into an archetype of his own over the last 30 years. Hubie Dubois isn’t quite as dumb as Bobby Boucher or as deranged as whatever Sandler’s character was called in “That’s My Boy,” but he’s another shade of the same instantly recognizable color. The big difference here is that Hubie — a Jew whose (French-Canadian?) family has been in Salem since the witch trials(??) — doesn’t share the deep-seated anger that allows you to draw a straight line from “Billy Madison” to “Punch-Drunk Love.” Instead, that rage is dispersed across the other people in Salem, some of whom have been picking on Hubie since he was crowned “most likely to marry his pillow” in his high school yearbook.
It’s easy enough to understand why people wouldn’t like Hubie (if this were “The Giver,” he would’ve been assigned a career as a hall monitor), but the mamma’s boy isn’t a narc so much as he’s… well, it’s unclear what he is. At this point, Sandler has created the kind of comedic shorthand where he doesn’t have to explain why any of his characters are the way they are. If Hubie wants to patrol Salem in a homemade sash and appoint himself the fun police, then so be it; Sandler doesn’t need a backstory so much as a director who understands what’s funny about a grown man being terrorized by everyone from his teenage co-worker at the deli (a ruthless and very funny Karan Brar) to the local priest (Michael Chiklis in the role he was born to play), and “Little Nicky” auteur Steve Brill gets what Sandler is going for and then gets out of the way. We stan a filmmaker who knows how to frame a scene in which a sexually frustrated Maya Rudolph, dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein, belittles her husband (Tim Meadows) with enough devastating force to forever redefine the phrase “Universal Horror.”
Whatever the case, Halloween is Hubie’s most important day of the year, and this Halloween is going to be the one that he always remembers. It’s bad enough that a psychopath has escaped from a nearby mental institution and is wandering the streets of Salem in a “Saw”-like pig mask, and it’s even worse that Hubie’s neighbor might transform into a man-eating beast at the first sight of a full moon. The enjoyably useless police (embodied by a mullet-sporting Kevin James in a role that answers the question: “what if Paul Blart and Joe Dirt went into the same telepod from ‘The Fly?’”) have always treated Hubie like a nuisance, but they might take him seriously once people start disappearing.
There’s a ridiculous romantic subplot that Julie Bowen manages to sustain on charm alone, and a b-story about how her foster kids cross paths with Hubie at the high school dance that night. But more important, there’s a scene where Squibb — playing Hubie’s loving mother in a performance that, in this dumb year, deserves all of the Best Supporting Actress buzz that everyone was so quick to waste on Ellen Burstyn — says that her son has “nice hair and sex hope.” Squibb’s job is to shout the movie’s half-assed themes to anyone who will listen (“True bravery is being kind, even to those who were cruel to you!”), but she delivers every line of moral exposition with such comic glee that you wish the script had more big ideas for her to beam about. And then there’s Buscemi, in what might be his most iconic Sandler-verse appearance this side of “Big Daddy,” delivering the kind of scary-sweet performance that crystallizes why he’ll be remembered by future generations with the same irreplaceable awe that we reserve for someone like Peter Lorre.
Everything around these bright spots is tinged with the same plastic disposability that sours the rest of Sandler’s Netflix offerings — even compared to the most dated stuff that Sandler made in the ’90s, these movies reflect the kind of standard-lowering that streaming allows by taking a ticket price out of the equation — but “Hubie Halloween” gets by on the strength of its cameos and sight gags. A Shaquille O’Neal appearance might be inevitable, but his role will take you by surprise. Melissa Villaseñor, Kenan Thompson, and Mikey Day might have all been cast because they could share the same Uber Pool from Studio 8H, but they each make the movie better for what they bring to it. The joke about women dressing in “slutty” Halloween costumes is so tired it’s practically undead, but “Hubie Halloween” finds a quick, non-sexist way to exhume it in heroic style.
Are those details enough to make “Hubie Halloween” much better than all the other content Sandler has churned out for Netflix so far, or am I just drunk on the movie’s pumpkin-spiced production design? It’s hard to say, but this is the first time in a long time that it feels nice to watch the Sandman goof off with his friends for 90 minutes. And as Mrs. Dubois would tell you, nice matters.
“Hubie Halloween” is now streaming on Netflix.