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A modern day bastion of bad movies, the once youthfully exuberant Adam Sandler has had quite the career trajectory. A man who was once one of the major faces of American comedy has since waned into more of a signature act for a number of borderline insulting screenplays, his brand of humour being seen by many as outdated if not entirely inappropriate. But surely there’s a reason he’s still so prominent in Hollywood? Surely there was once something that took him to where he is today…
Taking inspiration from the article “Why You Should Reconsider Adam Sandler“, here are the Top 10 Adam Sandler Performances.
Have an opinion? Leave a comment!
10. The Wedding Singer (1998)
Coming in the prime of Sandler’s marketability as a comedic talent, The Wedding Singer was very much an introspective spoof of the teen romance, but one that offered Sandler the opportunity to try something a little different to his usual brand of excitable and juvenile comedy, presenting him as an unlikely romantic who was intent on winning the girl.
It was a role that brought out the glint in Sandler’s eye in a completely different context, and asked more of the actor than we had grown used to in a dramatic sense while remaining faithful to his intricately designed star persona; a role that brought with it one of the more iconic moments of his career… the wedding singer playing the guitar on a plane at the end.
9. Big Daddy (1999)
Despite the movie being named after a famous British wrestler (of no resemblance), 1999 family comedy Big Daddy was at least slightly less likely to leave you feeling tired, warn down and like your head had just been beaten in. Slightly.
Sandler’s turn at a family comedy was mixed with his famed 1990s Generation X sense of humour to make something of a mess of a film that saw his unlikely father figure teaching a small child how to eat what he wants and pee in the street. You know, man stuff!
The arc Sandler’s character undergoes is from man-child to fully fledged grown up, with his character embracing change and responsibility to grow as a human being as the film goes on, offering Sandler the opportunity to add a little more than obnoxious comedy to his performance and bringing this offering onto our list.
8. Airheads (1994)
There’s a sense of innocence in Sandler’s 1994 Airheads performance that, when combined with his vastly different look and supporting role, make him hard to identify as the mosher-rocker he portrays.
Essentially the good guy of the group, Sandler’s performance as the band’s drummer alongside band-mates Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi becomes one of the more ultimately likeable of the quite uplifting (if not a little ridiculous) movie.
Sandler’s approach to the role from the position of someone with a childish innocence in every ultimately adult action is one we would become familiar with in mainstream cinema throughout the years that followed, but it was in Airheads where he first put these talents to the silver screen so effectively.
7. Billy Madison (1995)
When thinking of peak Adam Sandler, it’s hard to look beyond his performance in the utterly ridiculous yet somehow quite endearing Billy Madison (1995). The comedy actor, at the time just 29, burst onto the scene with his mid-90s work, Billy Madison being widely acknowledged as the beginning of Sandler’s box office draw as a lead star, and to this day it remains arguably his greatest comedic work.
In the movie he has all the juvenile delinquencies that so vastly appealed to Generation X, while the naivety he managed to attach to the character became one of his many comedic trademarks. Billy Madison is hardly going to have people pointing towards Sandler to win awards, but it was the location for one of the greatest comedy performances of his long career, thus deserving its spot on our list.
6. Happy Gilmore (1996)
So, you know how we said Billy Madison was arguably the peak of Sandler’s comedy career? Well… consider it a close 2nd place…
Best remembered for the iconic physical encounter between Sandler’s titular character and the then sprightly 72 year old Bob Barker (TV’s nice guy – who was playing himself, by the way), this comedy took a lot of the principles of Billy Madison – including a lot of its predecessor’s narrative beats – and turned them up to 11 with the absurdist nature of the hockey player turned golfer concept, top notch celebrity cameos and many a memorable moment.
Sandler himself excelled in the utterly farcical concept, mixing authentic physical comedy moments with his now somewhat overplayed loud and expressionistic takes on lines.
Oh the 90s… they were such a simpler time, weren’t they?
5. Spanglish (2004)
Spanglish screenwriter-director James L. Brooks has a long history of subverting the expectations his audiences have of his leading men, with As Good As It Gets placing Jack Nicholson in a leading man rom-com role for example. In this 2004 release it was the turn of Adam Sandler.
Coming off the back of a critically acclaimed performance in the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love (spoilers, that film is still yet to come in this list), Sandler wasn’t exactly fresh to the dramatic fold, but his more serious work was still something we were all getting used to.
It seemed that through the guidance of Brooks, Sandler grew up, offering a more low-key and understated performance in the somewhat serious albeit understated movie, bringing to the table something fresh and new even beyond that of his surprise success under Paul Thomas Anderson on Punch-Drunk Love. Were it not for a run of average-to-bad comedies that followed this film, we could have been talking about this as the moment Sandler confirmed his dramatic credentials ahead of a lucrative dramatic career, but it wasn’t to be.
4. Funny People (2009)
Funny People lied to us.
It was promoted as if a film about comedians learning to write funny sketches and stand-up routines together, the cast of Judd Apatow regulars like Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann supporting Adam Sandler in an almost self-referential role of comedian looking to get back to his best.
What Funny People ended up being was a comically touched drama about overcoming serious grief in the midst of bitterness, with Sandler offering a performance radiating underlying anger and resentment that at times made him scary.
Sure, this film has some pretty solid funny moments with Eric Bana being particularly impressive in this regard, but Sandler’s performance is one of an entirely miserable man who has lost the only things that mean anything to him, and has done so without ever stopping to realise.
If there was a point in this list where you might want to down your anti-Adam tools and embrace Sandler as a capable dramatic force, that’ll be now.
3. Reign Over Me (2007)
2007 movie Reign Over Me saw a transformation of sorts for Sandler.
The actor, who had already starred in a number of dramas, removed all of his comedic sensibilities in an attempt to tackle this role head on, and tackle it he did.
The performance Sandler put together for this piece about two old friends reconnecting in the aftermath of 9/11 was one of sheer grief and instability, his performance of the movie’s anchoring monologue being nothing short of spectacular.
The movie itself had its issues but remains one of the actor’s very best, his performance here playing with the idea of Sandler as a performer of adult naivety and subverting it by attaching deeply tragic history to him, something Sandler carried with a maturity and deftness that remains memorable to this day.
2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Adam Sandler blew his comedy history out of the water in his 2002 universally praised performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.
Having achieved almost unparalleled heights as a comedic talent in the 90s, Sandler subtly worked his way into the dramatic sphere with brief moments in the likes of Big Daddy before diving head first into this anchoring role; the first real glimpse of something deeper and more meaningful from the powerhouse talent.
It was a performance so shocking in its sophistication and so utterly fantastic in its own right that many still consider this to be the performance of 2002, and one that should have been nominated for an Oscar. Let that sink in for a moment… an Adam Sandler performance many critics and scholars feel should have been nominated for an Oscar.
P.T. Anderson tapped into Sandler’s innocent portrayals to offer something deeper and potentially more sinister as a side note to Sandler’s usual performances, while Sandler himself was willing to go the extra mile to truly embrace the testing and incredibly difficult role at the centre of the director’s borderline art-house piece. It was a match made in heaven that is sure to leave many reading this list wondering how it hasn’t earned the number 1 spot, and if you’re one of those people, be sure to say so in the comments below.
1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – (2017)
Here it is, the performance that knocked the classic filmgoer’s prediction from the top spot: Sandler’s role as Danny in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
What is so fantastic about the performance in this movie can be best summed up by Sandler’s physical transformation and the embrace he has to the theatre-like style of Baumbach’s work. The actor, whose serious roles had dried up for the better part of a decade ahead of this role, adopted a limp that never once seemed to be out of place or a caricature, instead playing it as a sign of the character’s broken apart and put back together again life as well as his role as the fumbling, less-successful sibling of a fractured and untypical family.
Baumbach’s style of having dialogue spoken over other dialogue while the action is filmed in long takes is something akin to that of the stage, and despite sharing this particular stage with incredibly successful actors like Dustin Hoffman, Sandler excelled, stealing the show from Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and company, to become the standout of a very well performed picture.
Sandler’s performance was one that, in every way, fought for attention, the limp bringing the eye to his empathetic character, the stumbling dialogue being just different enough to mark him out from the rest. It was a truly fantastic performance from a star we’d long forgotten to be capable of such; the best and most must-watch performance of a 25 year career.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!