Not remotely scary and only moderately more funny, Sandler’s harmless new Netflix outing underlines his latter-day preference for kindness over cruelty.A few questions to ask yourself before watching “Hubie Halloween”: How long and loud are you liable to laugh at the sight of 90-year-old June Squibb wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Boner Donor?” What about one saying “I Shaved My Balls For This?” Or “If You Can Read This, You’re In Fart Range”? If you’re still merrily chuckling at the idea of Squibb wearing the words “Kayaking Gets Me Wet” across her chest, then proceed to “Hubie Halloween,” for you’ll find all your holidays have come at once. That’s about as good as the running gags get in Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix joint, which isn’t especially quick or funny even by the comedian’s basic standards — but is also too cheerfully, indifferently silly to raise much ire.Existing fans only need apply: Sandler’s work for the streaming giant has evolved to a level as industry-proof as it is critic-proof, dependent merely on an algorithm to find those who will laugh at its jokes. (Hey, we should all be so lucky.) Yet the broad — in multiple senses — reach of “Hubie Halloween” suggests that fanbase spans a few generations. Essentially throwaway family entertainment with as much faint sexual innuendo as can fit under a PG-13 ceiling, the film offers up Sander’s once-signature gross-out shenanigans in obligatory fashion: Within the first two minutes, there’s a projectile vomiting joke with so little payoff as to seem almost sheepish, soon cleaned up and out the way so the wholesome life lessons can begin.
And solid, inarguable lessons they are, too: Be kind, pretty much, and don’t bully anyone kinder or more vulnerable than you. If the humor of “Hubie Halloween” is somewhat toothless, at least it follows the film’s own rules. Squibb’s randy T-shirt collection aside, Sandler’s script — co-written with longtime collaborator Tim Herlihy — makes the star the butt of most of its jokes, if only so it can then tell us that making anyone the butt of a joke isn’t very nice. As Hubie Dubois, a middle-aged virgin who has never shed the mentality of a middle-school hall monitor, Sandler takes a character whom a harsher era of lowbrow comedy would have portrayed as mentally disabled, and instead merely makes him a study in victimized, too-pure-for-this-world sweetness. It’s a fine line to walk, and the only one to be seen in a film otherwise drawn entirely with magic marker.
Anyway, it’s Halloween in Hubie’s hometown of Salem, and if you think the film isn’t going to draw a connection between the 1692 witch trials and the modern-day locals’ persistent bullying of über-naive Hubie, you have either under- or over-estimated it. A self-appointed safety official for the town’s spooky celebrations, he is understandably scorned by local kids who want to revel without a mustachioed manchild in a pumpkin helmet telling them how to do so responsibly, and less explicably tormented by everyone from gruff local heavy Landolfa (Ray Liotta, for some reason) to mullet-coiffed police sergeant Downey (Kevin James, which figures) to the town priest (Michael Chiklis, because someone has to).
Not counting his zesty, over-protective mother (Squibb), the only person to give Hubie the time of day is his sweet-natured former classmate Violet (Julie Bowen), a onetime homecoming queen for whom our tongue-tied hero has always carried a torch. If you’re actually wondering whether his secret longing might be reciprocated, you’ll find “Hubie Halloween” as suspenseful as it is hilarious. Still, their tentative romance is but one item on the cluttered to-do list of the film’s all-in-one-night narrative: Other cobweb-weight subplots involve an enigmatic new neighbor (Steve Buscemi, nothing if not a good sport) who may or may not be a werewolf, a group of teens (led by “Stranger Things” cherub Noah Schnapp) finding their way to safety over the course of a chaotic night, and a masked, escaped mental patient who appears to be abducting assorted townsfolk.
The resolution of this slender mystery isn’t exactly surprising, but “Hubie Halloween” certainly keeps its audience distracted enough not to give it a second thought before it’s solved. Just keeping a running count of the film’s scattered star cameos is a full-time job, ranging as they do from pro forma (Ben Stiller, Rob Schneider) to sparky (Maya Rudolph, faring best of several “Saturday Night Live” alumni) to seemingly drawn-at-random (Shaquille O’Neal, whose disguise of sorts is the eeriest thing here). Director Steve Brill (another regular Sandler ally) keeps a lot of colorful balls in the air, even if the pacing is lumpier than you’d like in an enterprise this sketchy: Set pieces and one-off visual gags are simply stuffed in wherever they fit, like the cinematic equivalent of Hubie’s over-decorated Halloween front yard.
Nobody’s breaking a sweat here, but even on autopilot, Sandler’s mugging is sort of exhaustingly impressive on its own terms. The actor’s recent change-of-pace role in “Uncut Gems” may have earned him critical plaudits for “real” acting, but there’s method and skill in this kind of shrill physical showmanship, even when it appears to be his default setting. “I feel a lot of pressure to be cool all the time,” admits one of Hubie’s bullies, “but I’m jealous of your ability to be yourself.” Some of Sandlers’ peers may say the same to him: He has little reputation to risk on candy corn like “Hubie Halloween,” and his fans love him all the more for it.