Adam Sandler. Oh, Adam Sandler.
The once youthfully exuberant comedic actor, whose silver screen work in the mid to late 90s was about as encapsulating of the era as many of Jim Carrey’s famed releases, is now the butt of jokes across the internet, a modern day marker for any given movie’s lack of quality, and an overall meme machine of outdated and borderline offensive comedy that has long since ran its course.
Ask any Joe-bloggs on the street and they’ll tell you that Adam Sandler is a goof ball, and they may even be able to recount some of his older movies – make no mistake, Sandler is a very famous man – but ask anyone with a high opinion of their own film taste and they’ll likely relay some sort of story to you about how he’s a cancer to the industry, how his films are offensive or derogatory at best, and how everything he ever does seems to be made with the least effort he can afford.
Honestly, it’s hard to argue with that.
Sandler is, most of the time, nothing more than a man baby with a penchant for bad impressions, and one who fails to register any kind of emotion in the majority of his portrayals. His films are lowest common denominator filmmaking and often revolve around offensive tropes, characters or plot points. Since creating his own production company Happy Madison Productions in 1999, Sandler has overseen 48 projects including mild successes Little Nicky (2000), Anger Management (2003) and 50 First Dates (2004), but it’s in the past 10 years where his current reputation has come to precede him. Since 2008, Sandler has endured a multi-year stint as Hollywood’s least profitable high earning star and has since transitioned into a partnership with Netflix that, for all its worth to the streaming brand in terms of viewership (seriously, some of their co-productions are among the highest viewed movies of all time on Netflix), has had his critics frothing at the mouth upon every release, with the now 52 year old actor seemingly being at least 20 years too old to play most of the characters he is currently playing, and his comedy remaining about as outdated as AOL or Blockbuster video.
But here’s the thing… Sandler isn’t always himself. He isn’t always trying to recreate the success he found in the late 90s on the likes of The Water Boy, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. In fact, he’s primarily only doing this in the movies he makes as a part of Happy Madison Productions. Sandy Wexler? Check. The Ridiculous 6? Check. Pixels, Grown Ups, Jack and Jill? Check. Check. Check. All Happy Madison. Go through Sandler’s very lowest of career lows and you’ll find that Happy Madison is the common denominator.
This isn’t to say that Sandler’s influence over the production company and therefore heightened control over the products he stars in has come to poison each film (though there is an argument to be made), but more that Happy Madison as an Adam Sandler brand is, to Adam Sandler himself, a money making vehicle promising prospective clients (distributors, production partners, etc.) a very specific and reliable version of an Adam Sandler movie that may not always do so great in cinemas but is almost guaranteed to make tonnes of money on home video – one of his films was the highest rented release of the past decade in North America and the previously mentioned success of the company’s Netflix releases speaks for itself.
Happy Madison is, for all intents and purposes, an Adam Sandler movie factory that is churning out the same old reliable nonsense that has continued to be successful in one way or another, en-masse, for the past two decades. It’s paint by numbers filmmaking that relies on the exact same formula as that which Sandler’s biggest films have previously earned megabucks from, and as such presents a reliable, low cost and relatively high return investments to be made for potential partners. Sandler is simply exploiting the fact that his films, as chastised and heavily criticised as they are, make money. It’s a safe income, and who are we to deny him that?
But Sandler’s Happy Madison releases shouldn’t be the only barometer that we judge his career upon.
Over the years, admittedly intermittently, Sandler has developed a sub-career of sorts; an underlying list of performances that disprove the myth that he’s a one trick pony, that he’s incapable of maturity and devoid of true talent.
The first and most glaringly obvious example is his work in Punch-Drunk Love (2002).
When Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson explained to an interviewer that Adam Sandler was one of two Hollywood names he’d most like to work with in the midst of promoting his 1999 critical darling, and arguable masterpiece, Magnolia, the interviewer laughed, making note of the “joke” he had told in the resulting article and using it as a point of reference for the director’s seemingly up-beat and jovial attitude that seemed quite at odds with his release at the time.
But Anderson wasn’t joking.
In 2003, he released Punch-Drunk Love with Adam Sandler firmly seated in the pilot’s seat for perhaps the first make or break dramatic performance of his largely (but not entirely) comedic career to that point.
He hit it right out of the park.
Earning his first and only major awards nomination – a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical (despite how debatable it is as to whether Punch-Drunk Love is either of those things) – Sandler powered the borderline art-house romance over the finish line with a portrayal of his neurotic and falsely confident salesman character that rivalled the very best performances of that year and was undoubtedly one of the most overlooked by the major awards shows.
Looking back, Sandler’s Punch-Drunk Love performance wasn’t only a sensation because of how much of a shock to the system it was following his popular but wacky comedic outings in his previous films The Waterboy, Big Daddy and Little Nicky respectively, but perhaps more so because PT Anderson didn’t give him anywhere to hide.
Structurally, Punch-Drunk Love was set up to succeed or fail upon Adam Sandler’s shoulders – the movie simply wouldn’t have worked without a pitch perfect performance as it lacked the traditional narrative structure or structural support (supporting characters, sub-plots, etc.) to get by without him. It was sink or swim, hit or miss, and Sandler proved that even under so much pressure, he had the talent to succeed.
Even so, people point to this film as the exception that proves the rule. It’s easy to see why.
Not only was Punch-Drunk Love his first major dramatic performance, but it was his only one for the next five years, making it a 10 year Hollywood stint with only one predominantly dramatic performance, and in the height of his popularity too. But Sandler’s career hasn’t only lasted 10 years, it’s been going for over 25 years, and in the time either side of this famously comedic decade, there have been further glimmers of high quality performances and some of the most absurdly underrated performances of any actor over that time period. One such a performance came in the 2007 release Reign Over Me.
Sandler was transformed in Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me, removing himself entirely from the comedic side of his star persona to dive deep into a character struggling with PTSD and other mental health issues in the aftermath of losing his family in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Starring opposite the incredibly respectable Don Cheadle, Sandler brought a maturity, heart, sincerity and class to a role that proved he wasn’t only capable of caricature, that he wasn’t an actor of exaggeration and exaggeration alone. Some of the actor’s work in Reign Over Me was the most emotional of his career, with his delivery of the film’s most memorable monologue elevating the strong work of writer Mike Binder to a whole new level as he delivered a series of happy memories dosed in ultimate tragedy with a sense of unrelenting sadness, making the choice to avoid lifting the mood only to bring it crashing back down again (as is the case with many actors carrying out narrative-anchoring monologues) to instead drive home the unimaginable pain of his character’s every memory, playing the piece dead straight in possibly the crowning achievement of his entire acting career.
As was the case with Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler was placed into a role in Reign Over Me that was make or break for the screenwriter-director’s passion project, and under such pressure again delivered to the highest standard. It seems that, with Reign Over Me, he was dead-set on proving his ability to not only act, but to carry hefty dramatic work on his shoulders, and that he did.
Reign Over Me proved Sandler’s abilities as a major dramatic force, but as has been the case with much of Sandler’s career, his work in this regard was book-ended by poorly received comedic outings, in this case The Longest Yard (2005) & Click (2006) beforehand, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007) & You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) after the fact.
Following this string of films, Sandler dabbled in comedy and drama but it was through his role as Danny in Noah Baumbach’s 2017 ensemble drama The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) that Sandler’s authenticity shone brightest once again.
This time filling one of many central roles as opposed to being the anchor of the piece, Sandler needed to earn the right to share the screen with the sort of talent that has topped awards season fare for decades in amongst Noah Baumbach’s mix of trusted collaborators and icons, and with every single scene in The Meyerowitz Stories, he did just that.
In a movie built almost entirely around its presentation of realistic dialogue – as outlined superbly by Nerdwriter in this video – Sandler’s performance is one that fights to take your attention back to the screen, hooking you with a nervous energy around which every other performance seems to gravitate.
His character is undoubtedly fantastically written, with Sandler filling the role of family member fighting to prove his worth to the family as Sandler is fighting to prove his worth to the cast, and Baumbach must be given further credit for directing Sandler to be the most energetic and physical of all the performers. In many ways, the character Sandler fills needed an actor to borrow from comedy because of how he’s seemingly always accidentally getting things wrong within the narrative of the film and that the role demands more physicality from his performance than that of the other characters in the movie.
Sandler’s character Danny has a limp that is mentioned a number of times throughout the film, and despite this Sandler is shown to be in motion most of the time. It’s a portrayal of insecure nervousness that is matched by the character’s insistence upon finishing his relatives’ sentences, fulfilling an imaginary role within the group that he sees himself too far below to ever truly reach. Sandler hunches and makes his limp more of a tick than a prop upon which to rest his performance, instead playing the role entirely straight, borrowing ticks and tropes from Dustin Hoffman (his on-screen father) to create a link between the two that signals their similarities and Danny’s idolisation of Harold (Hoffman) simultaneously.
Despite his role as one of a number of leads as opposed to the star upon whose shoulders the film is rested, Sandler is yet again placed into a high pressure situation in The Meyerowitz Stories by the director’s insistence on theatre-like long scenes filled with tonnes of dialogue and lots of instances in which the characters speak over one another. Adding this sort of pressure cooker filming environment to the already existing pressure of working with some of the most respected actors in the game may have been nerve wracking, but once again it seemed to bring something out of Sandler that was of an entirely different level to most of the work in his career. As was the case with Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, he channelled the pressure into a truly phenomenal performance; a performance in the case of The Meyerowitz Stories that was nothing short of movie-stealing.
But Sandler didn’t spend the entire ten years between Reign Over Me and The Meyerowitz Stories fulfilling less-than-artistic obligations to Happy Madison (though there were 22 films released during that period), but he also used Happy Madison to further his dramatic career.
2009 release Funny People was, contrary to its promotion and title, a drama with comedic elements as opposed to an out and out comedy, and the actor playing the most serious and dramatic of the star-studded cast? Adam Sandler.
The Judd Apatow film that co-starred Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwarzman, Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza had Sandler’s character arc take a much more dark twist than might have been expected, and what was so fascinating about it was how Sandler was playing a role that seemed almost autobiographical. He was a comedian, and a famous one at that, but he was struggling with his riches, his fame, and the pressure and obligation to make every next stand up routine as good as the last. Eventually this all got on top of him. It was the sort of arc you could easily apply to Sandler’s own career as a comedian and comedy actor, but it wasn’t the only Happy Madison film to feature moments of credible talent.
Other Happy Madison movies to include such moments are Anger Management, Click and Bedtime Stories, and while those moments of actual inspiration are perhaps only fleeting at best and are far from definitive proof of his overall talent, there’s no denying that in Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me and The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler is very good, nay outstanding, and that his oeuvre should at least be given a second chance.
He may go down in history as a traditionally “stupid comedy” type of actor, but Sandler is a watchable and important artist when fully present in the projects he’s developing and when nurtured by the right people. The former ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum, whose trajectory through film has been incredibly lucrative but not nearly as respected as some of his contemporaries, has provided us with performances that are great not just because of how they juxtapose his usual work but on their own merits, so while such performances may be few and far between, it remains not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Sandler shall one day produce something so phenomenal that he’s awarded for it. Until then, at least we have Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me and The Meyerowitz Stories.