Credit where it’s due: the Happy Madison producers took a step in the right direction when they partnered with Netflix. For one thing, the partnership allowed fans of their signature brand of humor to easily access their latest work. More importantly, this partnership got them to make comedies that finally embraced other distinct genres. In 2015, we got The Ridiculous 6, which put a comedic spin on classic Westerns. And in 2019, we got Murder Mystery, which put a comedic spin on the genre that makes up its title. With those movies, they sparked some interest because of the goofy humor that contrasted with the rigid genre tropes. And from the looks of it, Hubie Halloween sets out to do something similar.
I emphasize “similar” because the filmmakers are not just here to make a horror-comedy. While the movie does juggle between the spooky and the zany throughout, screenwriters Tim Herlihy & Adam Sandler have higher aspirations. In essence, the movie functions as a showcase of Halloween itself from a youthful perspective. Not only do we follow costumed kids as they get candy, but we also see what a school day is like for people waiting to celebrate the holiday. What’s fascinating about its depiction of a school day on Halloween is how an environment can alter people’s holiday spirit. At most, students sit through a school speech about enjoying the night responsibly. Even then, it’s evident from the facial expressions that the children have no interest in it whatsoever.
If there’s anything in Hubie Halloween that best showcases a child-like view of Halloween, it would be its upbeat atmosphere. From start to finish, the movie presents its setting of Salem, Massachusetts with a sense of liveliness. As a result, no scene goes by without a glimpse of decorated houses and spooky iconography. In addition, director Steven Brill does a solid job of keeping the movie within the confines of family-friendly horror. This means that while it has a few unsettling scenes, it has enough light-heartedness to not alienate its target audience. Top that off with Seamus Tierney’s warm cinematography and you have a Halloween movie that’s as festive as the best of them.
It would be a shame if all of this was wasted on a tedious comedy that enabled Sandler to embrace his inner man-child. Alas, that is exactly what happened. For all its strengths as a holiday movie, Hubie Halloween fails to make its low-brow humor fresh or amusing. In fact, without the festive setting, the film is like everything else that comes out of Adam Sandler’s Factory of Juvenile Humor and Constant Mugging™. Jokes at the expense of bodily functions? Check! Comedians that are only there because they are friends with Sandler? Check! A finale that leans into sentimentality much more than it deserves? Check! On the plus side, the movie has a few things that make it more interesting than the likes of Murder Mystery.
At the top of the list is how Sandler depicts the main character of Hubie Dubois as an ever-present annoyance. On the page, Hubie is a massive contradiction of a human being. Even though Halloween is his favorite holiday – to the point that his house has tons of decorations – he has a serious aversion to being scared. It doesn’t matter if the scares are innocuous, Hubie reacts as if he witnessed a bloody murder. People like Mr. Landolfa (Ray Liotta) make fun of him at work, while others like Lester (Tim Meadows) prank him during his free time. With these activities, it is easy for the citizens of Salem to treat him as a laughing stock. Because of that, we have a protagonist that’s too cartoonish to be a relatable figure.
But those oddball antics are nowhere near as irritating as Sandler’s onscreen portrayal of Hubie. For those who wince whenever Sandler tries to do a “funny” voice, this will seem more like a torture test than a movie. By now, the prospect of Sandler delivering his lines through a strained voice is not new. That is, to say, for short bursts! Hubie Halloween, meanwhile, is an example of Sandler putting on a strained voice for the protagonist’s entire screentime. No matter what, his attempts at sounding cutesy come off as condescending to both kids and adults. Even in Hubie’s quieter moments, Sandler mugs to the camera as if it was something he had never seen before.
It doesn’t help that the story surrounding Hubie is a jumbled mess. You would think that a plot centering on the disappearance of various people and Hubie taking action to solve the case would sustain a whole movie. However, the subplot with Hubie and his love interest Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen) shows that the script needs all the material it can get. What makes it worse is that the film barely develops any of its subplots, especially this one. The most interesting thing about Violet is that her first and last name start with the same letter, but that’s about it. Beyond that, Herlihy & Sandler are simply satisfied with running through the same “loser tries to win over the popular girl” story beats you can lay out in your sleep.
When Hubie Halloween doesn’t spend time poorly developing its central romance, it spends time poorly developing characters that could have been fun with more material. In particular, Hubie’s neighbor Walter Lambert (Steve Buscemi) has a few amusing secrets of his own. But like everything that doesn’t directly involve Hubie, the movie stops developing Walter once we learn more about his backstory. To make things worse, the script insists on keeping him in for scenes that have little to do with him. So while I think that Buscemi delivers the film’s most charming performance, the movie makes sure to push him to the background.
Keep in mind, the comedic beats in the foreground are not the work of people who put much effort. At best, we have a running gag involving a Thermos with as many tools as a Swiss Army knife. Not only does it come out of nowhere, but it amuses every time it comes back. On average, the movie has to make do with gags such as Hubie using the words “boner” and “mistake” interchangeably. Perhaps this style of comedy would work if the intent was to be on the side of those who disliked Hubie. But because the film wants to end with an anti-bullying message, the intent is the exact opposite. This means that its attempts at humor fit badly with the movie’s ultimate message on top of being lazy on their own terms.
Let me be clear: Hubie Halloween is not devoid of things to like. In fact, enough of it works that I can see it become a Halloween viewing staple in the years to come. Still, its successes as a holiday film don’t make up for all of its failures as a comedy. I’m not one to reject bodily humor or wild expressions on principle. But the Happy Madison folks are so effective at sucking the joy out of its comedy that I almost want to do that. I suppose the silver lining is that this is easily the best Happy Madison movie that 2020 has to offer. But given that such company includes the awful The Wrong Missy, let’s not act like this is a big victory. – Mark Tan
Hubie Halloween is now streaming on Netflix.
The film stars Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Julie Bowen, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi, and Rob Schneider.