Stars don’t come more divisive than Adam Sandler, an actor long beloved by mass film-watching audiences but dismissed with an almost instinctive eye-roll by critics. Just look at the numbers – he has a whopping 13 films with a rating of 10% or less on reviews aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, two of which (2015’s The Ridiculous 6 and 2011’s Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star) scored 0%.
These are the same movies that have been viewed for a collective total of two billion hours on Netflix alone. To put that in context: the streaming giant claims a global user base of 167 million, meaning that the average subscriber has watched almost 12 hours of Sandler. Did you soothe your hangover with The Waterboy recently? Or catch The Wedding Singer at your parents’ house on a Sunday? Yes, you probably did.
But, with the recent release of Uncut Gems (which NME described as “an anxiety-inducing heart-attack of a movie”), a peculiar thing happened: the critics actually liked it. NME Film and TV editor Alex Flood called it a “masterstroke”, The Guardian labelled it “exhilarating” and Empire dubbed it “one of the most mesmerising thrillers in a long time”. Sure, Uncut Gems may not have got any Oscars love, but that hasn’t dampened talk that something of a “Re-Sandler-ssance” is underway.
This narrative may be too simplistic though. In fact, it’s less that Sandler is finally hitting his stride mid-way through a so-so career and more that he’s been underestimated for far too long. Sandler’s filmography is filled with gems but – a lot like the precious opal that Kevin Garnett obsesses over in the new movie – it takes a bit of digging to unearth them. Here’s why you should have woken up to Sandy’s greatness years ago…
His early classics remain great
Sure, there have been some stinkers in Sandler’s filmography. 2011’s cross-dressing comedy Jack and Jill was indefensibly outdated, and must surely still haunt Al Pacino, who makes a cameo in it. But for every Jack and Jill and, worse yet, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (two straight firefighters pretend to be a gay couple in order to receive domestic partner benefits), there are genuine greats.
Sandler’s early career one-two of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, while very ‘un-woke’ in parts, still thrill with their innocent humour. The jokes in Big Daddy, too, mirrored the film’s subject matter: a goofy man-child babysitting the best way he can, by bringing himself down to the kid’s level. Part of Sandler’s appeal has always been that he perfectly embodies the child-like wonder and naivety of his characters, and this is no more convincing than in these early movies.
It’s not all slapstick
It was evident even in Sandler’s early career that his talents weren’t solely limited to gross-out humour. The Wedding Singer proved he could do heartwarming comedy without the cheese, while Judd Apatow’s Funny People allowed him to go meta, switching up his usual schtick with a certain level of self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality, playing a comedian in ill-health suddenly fixated by his “legacy”.
He held his own with Emma Thompson in The Meyerowitz Stories
Uncut Gems may be Sandler’s most serious role yet, but it’s by no means his only role like it. Noah Baumbach’s Netflix drama The Meyerowitz Stories cast him alongside acting heavyweights Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, as well as fellow comedy-drama genre-straddler Ben Stiller.
Sandler more than holds his own, playing a divorced, unemployed man who is forced to move in with his dad (Hoffman) after a bad turn in his own life. It took the Sandler man-child stereotype and added a twist, with the actor bringing much pathos to the role. Variety, in almost palpable shock, wrote at the time: “With no shtick to fall back on, Sandler is forced to act, and it’s a glorious thing to watch”.
He damn near broke our hearts in Punch-Drunk Love
Sandler’s scene-stealing performance in The Meyerowitz Stories shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as it was way back in 2002 with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love when Sandler first convincingly showed that he wasn’t limited to the slapstick humour that made his name.
Punch-Drunk Love came at the height of Sandler’s career, just as he was beginning to be pigeonholed by both the public and Hollywood. Described by one critic as “a romantic comedy on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” the movie used Sandler’s oddball humour to perfect effect, almost as if to undercut the usual tropes of rom-coms, and allowed for a more dark, and unusually poignant performance from the star.
He steals the show on SNL every time
Despite his dramatic turns, comedy is what Sandler remains best known and loved for. His recent stand-up special, the wryly-tightled 100% Fresh (a little wink at those Rotten Tomatoes ratings), managed to combine both dick jokes and some tender moments, like his closing musical tribute to late friend Chris Farley.
It’s a song he also performed recently on Saturday Night Live, the place where he first cut his comedy chops in the early ’90s. Popping up on SNL every now and again since, he’s always a highlight when he returns. Like last year, when he reprised his character of Opera Man. It showed that sometimes the simpler ideas are the most effective ones, with Sandler underlining the stupidity of the modern news cycle by announcing them as a Phantom of the Opera-type figure.
Ultimately though, he doesn’t care what you think
Perhaps the biggest thing to celebrate about Sandler, though, is his refusal to take things too seriously – even the recent flurry of praise. He really doesn’t care, and you just have to respect that. Sometimes he’ll team up with one of Hollywood’s most revered directors (Baumbach, PTA or the Safdie Brothers, as is the case of Uncut Gems), and sometimes he’ll rake it in with a down-the-middle, straight-to-Netflix comedy. He does what he wants at this point.
Asked recently what he’d do if he wasn’t nominated by the Academy for Uncut Gems, his response was perfect. “If I don’t get it, I’m going to fucking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay,” he sniggered. “That’s how I get them.”
Fast-forward to this past weekend and Adam Sandler poked fun at his reported ‘snub’ by the Oscars panel. Speaking during a speech at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, he compared the Academy overlooking him to that time he got the not-so-coveted “Best Personality’ prize in his high school yearbook instead of the far-more-prestigious ‘Best Looking’, evoking cheers when he sniped: “Let all of those feather-haired douchebag motherfuckers get their Oscars tomorrow night. Their handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever!” Here, here.