Even though it doesn’t star Adam Sandler, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo was the first film released by Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, which has endured right up to his Netflix deal in the present day. For that reason, and despite the scathing reviews, it’s a surprisingly strong offering, both in terms of comedy and production design, forming a worthy flagship to Sandler’s comic empire, even if many of the films in its wake would be less than forgettable. In essence, it’s a parody of American Gigolo, featuring Rob Schneider, in his breakout role, as Deuce Bigalow, a hapless aquarium attendant who is forced to moonlight as a gigolo after housesitting the bachelor pad of a much more virile, successful gigolo, Antoine Leconte, played by Oded Fehr, and accidentally destroying all his possessions in the process.
Deuce Bigalow came out exactly two decades after American Gigolo – and that’s part of the joke, since Schneider more or less opts for the same late 70s suavity that Richard Gere displayed in Paul Schrader’s film. Of course, Schneider doesn’t have Gere’s looks, but Deuce Bigalow reveals that he’s surprisingly handsome when he’s not going for gross laughs, or rotating through the apparently endless array of ethnic side characters he brings to Sandler vehicles. At the same time, Deuce Bigalow reminds us that Schneider’s charm is very much that of the late 70s – hirsute, drenched in cologne, and clad in tropical shirts – and doesn’t translate at all to the late 90s, unlike Gere’s more universal charm. The central joke here is that Deuce might have been a player in the 70s, or passed for hot in the 70s, but has long since passed out a style, especially since he doesn’t seem to have dated in a long time, or had any successful encounters with women full stop, before taking up his new career as a gigolo.
In other words, Deuce is a specimen, a form of masculine charm caught out of time, as arcane and alien as his beloved fish, who preoccupy most of the first act of the film. Although the film is set in LA, it feels like it’s shot in Miami – the ocean always feels hot and close, and the water table always threatens to rise through the massive ponds and aquariums that make up Deuce’s working life. Since’s he’s continually submerged in water, he’s never completely clean, always covered in a slimy patina of sweat that makes us uncomfortably aware of the surface of his body. At times he seems more like a swamp thing than a fully-formed person – covered in amniotic pond murk, just emerged from the womb, dripping detritus everywhere.
After watching Gummo, Werner Herzog commented time and again on the image that made him recognise Harmony Korine’s genius – a piece of bacon taped to the wall of a bathroom. There’s a similar genius for abject imagery in Deuce Bigalow, especially when it involves water. In one of the best recurring scenes, Deuce and his pimp, T.J. Hicks, played by Eddie Griffin, meet in T.J.’s hot tub, on a balcony above the beach, to discuss their business. Each time T.J. drops a piece of food in the hot tub – and not just any food, but items like tomato slices, hot chips, pieces of bread and ice cream scoops, that are especially revolting as they churn around on the surface of the water, sliding up to Deuce’s chest before Eddie scoops them up into his mouth. In these scenes, Deuce Bigalow demonstrates the same abject genius as Gummo, imagining every surface as a petri dish for germs, grimes and gross-out potential.
This could easily just work as a gross-out film, but Deuce Bigalow is quite original in pairing this abject style with the sweetest character in Schneider’s entire body of work. There’s no doubt that Deuce is at the bottom of the pecking order – as his pimp tells him, he’s a guppy, a bottom dweller, and so expected to service the most desperate or unusual clients. This is not that different from the beta male roles that Sandler typically plays, except that, unlike Sandler, Schneider has no real residual machismo or attitude. Whereas Sandler normally relies on insane bursts of aggression to remasculinise his pathetic protagonists, Deuce is all sweetness and credulity. This is as much a departure from Schneider’s anarchic and antisocial cameros in Sandler’s films as it is from Sandler’s persona itself, to the point where Deuce Bigalow almost plays as an argument or apology for Happy Madison as a new kind of film franchise; more forgiving, intelligent and dexterous than Sandler’s foundational solo vehicles.
The result is a kind of an awry sweetness that manages to blend scatology and sentimentality in a single character, rather than oscillating vertinously between saccharine preachiness and gross-out aggression, as occurs whenever Sandler himself is centre stage. This scatological sentimentality leads to the best moments of any of Sandler’s films so far – Deuce’s encounters with his father, Bob Bigelow, played by Richard Riehle. Bob works as bathroom attendant in a swanky hotel, and has a penchant for sentimental flourishes, which always take place against the backdrop of people crapping, toilets overflowing, and turds flying. If revolting liquids percolate their way throughout Deuce Bigalow, then Bob’s bathroom is the film’s water table, the wellspring of its abject flow, and the source of all its grotesque tributaries.
Director Mike Mitchell cements this with a terrific montage sequence in the second act, taking us through three revolting scenarios that conflate the restaurant, the toilet and Deuce’s gigolo business. First, we see the housemate of a client dropping a runny egg on a cat, then we see Deuce working on an aquarium at the restaurant, as a lobster is removed and drips its crustacean textures over its nose. Finally, we shift to Bob, now in a private residence, splashing a family as he extracts a turd from a toilet. Bringing Deuce’s aquarium business into the restaurant, and expanding Bob’s bathroom maintenance out into the wider world, this sequence collapses the exquisitely monitored water of Deuce’s fish tanks into the blocked toilets that Bob services. Every drop of water, however filtered, leads straight back to the sewer, just as Deuce never quite leaves his sweaty slick behind, no matter how he dresses up.
Yet these revolting restaurant encounters are also the most sentimental in the film – and prevent the film’s sentiment ever quite turning saccharine in the same way as a Sandler vehicle. This finely-tuned sentiment also stops Deuce Bigalow just short of becoming a gross-out film, or even a regular sex comedy, since Deuce rarely has regular sex with any of his clients. Whereas Sandler loves to play freaks who discover their inner normcore by learning to punch down on those around them, Mitchelllargely refrains from body shaming, or kink shaming, despite the fact that Deuce is presented with exactly the kinds of female bodies that Sandler typically mocks. His first client is obese, his second a giant, his third a narcoleptic and his fourth has Tourette’s. While these are partly played for laughs, Deuce sets out to find each client’s kink, and service it, rather than opting for Sandler’s crueller and more reactive style.
The result is a remarkably generous vision of sexuality, at least for a sex comedy, in which the human body is inherently disabled, and all bodies are on the same disability spectrum. Of course, that’s a pretty easy thing to say if you’re able-bodied, let alone an able-bodied actor in a Happy Madison film. Yet Schneider does affirm body positivity as much as he can within the Happy Madison universe, especially when it comes to Deuce’s relationship with Kate, his love interest, played by Arija Bareikis. At first, Kate seems like a pretty typical Sandler girl – she’s thin, she’s blonde, and she seems different in kind from the other bodies in the film. Yet Kate is also disabled, asking Deuce, on the first time they sleep together, “if you were to find out something about my body that was different to what you’re used to, would you be OK?”
In a deft double twist, Kate seems like she’s about to confess that she’s transgender, or intersex, telling Deuce that “I have a p-“ and then taking a moment to regather herself, and clarify that she has a prosthetic leg. The possibility of her having a penis lingers over this part of the film, but you kind of feel that Deuce would be OK with it, partly because his response to her leg is an object lesson in how to greet a disability – with neither horror nor performative compassion, but just a matter-of-fact, good-natured frankness: “I’ve got a lot of things going on in my life at the moment, and they all kind of culminated when your leg fell off.” While Deuce is momentarily taken aback, he makes it up to Kate by coming into the hair transplant practice where she works, and presenting himself as subject in need of bodily modification, embracing his own imperfection by drooling all over himself as she gives him the anaesthetic.
Of course, again, this is a pretty sanitised vision of disability, but it feels quite remarkable coming in the midst of a genre and production company that has such a vested interest in body-shaming. Once more, you can’t help but wonder whether Deuce Bigalow was a mission statement for a more inclusive comic universe from Sandler, since its main goal finally seems to be to destigmatise sex work itself – and present sex work as a caring profession above all. For all the gross-out comedy, and exploitative residues, Deuce works as a kink carer, while the people who try to police female bodies are the real monsters and perverts here. We only ever hear Sandler as a series of anonymous voices yelling out abuse to Deuce’s clients, while the Sandler surrogate is a police officer who follows Deuce around everywhere, moralising insanely about his lifestyle only to start whipping out his penis to ask whether it’s big enough.
In other words, Deuce Bigalow inverts and undercuts the body-shaming, kink-shaming and disability-shaming that forms such a big part of Sandler’s world view, which makes it an intriguing first entry in the Happy Madison catalogue. By the time we get to the last scene in the hot tub, T.J. has started to drop wads of cash in the water, which float around, commingle with the food, and turn into the most limpid and disgusting objects in the film. Similarly, by the time we get to the end of the film, Deuce is totally disinterested in social capital, collaborating with the women he has serviced to take revenge on Laconte, the original alpha gigolo. When Laconte returns from his holiday, Deuce has indeed made enough money to restore his house, but he only finishes at the last minute, meaning all his female friends, and their disparate bodies, are now newly visible in this space once defined by body normativity.
In a brilliant final touch, Laconte inadvertently drinks his prized lionfish, which has been accidentally pulverised in a blender, before his aquarium, which Deuce had to replace with a cheaper model, bursts at the seams and once more floods the house with sickly liquid textures. This time, though, it’s Laconte, rather than Deuce, who bears the brunt of that swamp slime, thanks to a final stand-off with Kate, who uses her prosthetic leg to thwart his phallic insanity, which involves hurling one weapon after another from his enormous arsenal straight at Deuce’s face. This final fight sequence is one of many references to The Matrix throughout the film, which draws so heavily from the Wachowskis’ vision that it often plays as a homage, as improbable as that might seem. Perhaps Schneider saw something of their own nascent gender fluidity in his own vision, since Deuce Bigalow is a much slyer and more open-minded film that might first seem, an anti-gross-out comedy in which no body is normal.