Yeah, I said it!
I’d been half-planning this post anyway, but the other day I was running down (critically disparaging) the movies of another SNL alum (okay, I’ll name him, Will Ferrell) and someone felt the need to lump Adam Sandler in with him. I understand the temptation. There is a genre of film which I call “Stupid Post-SNL comedies” and as you can tell I don’t rate the genre highly. But in actuality the alum of that show are too diverse to tar with a single brush, and some of them have worked very hard to achieve escape velocity and have managed to do respectable work as actors, often a lot of it (my short list would include Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Amy Poehler, not including several who were already famous like Christopher Guest, Michael McKean etc). I would also include Sandler on that short list, not even taking into account his mega-galactic box office figures. His body of work is both voluminous and varied, and by now he has given not one, nor a couple, but several critically acclaimed performances in critically acclaimed films. I think, in the public mind at least, Sandler is a little bit of a victim of first impressions being lasting impressions. His silly, child-like ’90s persona very much dominates that perception.
Sandler is both talented and charismatic (you either see it or you don’t I guess) but also phenomenally lucky. He’d got his first acting work when he was still an NYU student, as a recurring character as one of Theo’s friends on The Cosby Show (1987-88). Born in Brooklyn, raised in New Hampshire, he’d gotten his first stand-up comedy experience in Boston as a teenager. SOMEHOW in 1989 he was cast as the lead in his first film Going Overboard, in which he plays a cruise ship comedian. This was BEFORE being hired by SNL. This movie is so auspicious, it actually has a scene with Milton Berle (the real Milton Berle, who would live another dozen years) passing the torch to him. That will put the wind in your sails. Anyway, there are clips of Sandler’s early stand-up set on Youtube, and I highly recommend it, for it is KILLER. His early-stand-up persona was a kind of cross between Jerry Lewis and Rodney Dangerfield, a gangly adenoidal Jewish kid, a schlemiel. The set is very old school, extremely well written and delivered at a breakneck pace.
Reportedly Dennis Miller saw Sandler’s stand-up set and recommended him for SNL. At the time, I considered the cast he was a part of (1990-95), which also included Chris Farley, David Spade, Rob Schneider along with older blood like Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Miller, etc. to be the strongest since the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. I found them edgy, fresh, willing to take risks. Sandler’s contributions were radically low-brow but at the same time, extremely original and offbeat. If they were JUST stupid, I wouldn’t have time for them. He was especially known for his funny original songs, and for a constellation of just-barely-realized characters in wigs, glasses, and other simple costume pieces that again reminded one of Jerry Lewis (e.g. Opera Man, Cajun Man, Canteen Boy etc) and several that were less high concept but more recognizable as human beings. During this time he also released his first comedy album, which went platinum, and appeared in the movies Shakes the Clown (1991), Coneheads (1993), Airheads (1994) and Mixed Nuts (1994). And yet astoundingly (as we learned in retrospect) he was fired from the show in 1995. I’d always assumed that he left voluntarily because he was extremely popular and he stepped immediately into a highly successful movie career. I just assumed he “left to do movies” as so many of them did. In reality it seems the show was experiencing low ratings and was way over budget, and Sandler’s behind-the-scenes personality, which was predictably obnoxious, rubbed some of his-coworkers the wrong way.
So now we come to his movies, and by that I mean his starring pictures as opposed to the earlier ones in which he was part of an ensemble. They are pretty easy to break into categories — and they are not all what people think of as “Adam Sandler movies” by a long shot. But we’ll talk about that category first. These are generally films that build on his SNL reputation for broad, cartoonish characters, often with speech impediments or apparent mental impairments. They are a bit in the tradition, for good or ill, of Jerry Lewis. Often there is little to no character development; Sandler is just playing a mannerism in some high concept scenario. These films were often written or co-written by his comedy partner Tim Herlihy; many were directed by Dennis Dugan. They include Billy Madison (1995), a concept not unlike Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School; Happy Gilmore (1996) about a hockey player who becomes a successful golfer; The Wedding Singer (1998), a rom-com that gave him his first good reviews and was later adapted into a Broadway musical, but belongs in this category due to Sandler’s mock-80s characterization; The Waterboy (1998), about a mentally challenged football water boy; Big Daddy (1999), a semi-sentimental “adopted kid” comedy in the tradition of The Kid; Little Nicky (2000), in which he plays the ne’er-do-well son of Satan; I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) in which he and Kevin James are a couple of firefighters who pretend to be gay; You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) in which an Israeli spy starts a new life as a hairdresser; and Jack and Jill (2011), in which he plays two roles, one of whom is his own, very homely, sister. Now, I think when people are talking about Adam Sandler movies being bad they are really talking about Billy Madison-Happy Gilmore-The Waterboy, which are kind of foundational worst offenders. But already, in such things as The Wedding Singer and Big Daddy, he seems to be aspiring to more amidst the cheap laughs, however unsuccessfully.
Then there are his “real” movies, actual critically acclaimed films, including P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk-Love (2002), Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me (2007), Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009), Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), and Josh and Bennie Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019). Anderson is to be credited for seeing Sandler’s latent abilities and for drawing them out. Above all, he found the anger there, which had previously come out in some of his characters’ arrested outbursts in a kind of infantile way. But it was also there in his stand-up. In one of those early comedy sets, I stumbled across a wonderful one, prescient and telling, and significantly not very funny. He talks about being a Jew in New Hampshire and the anti-Semitic kids throwing pennies at him. “I picked the pennies up, invested them, started a new business, and now they call Mr. Boss”, There is THAT inside him. Frankly, it is inside most decent comedians. Seemingly weak figures of fun, they dream of power and revenge. The phenomenon is not unlike Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor alter ago Buddy Love. And I’m sorry to keep mentioning Lewis but he is a convenient precedent (I’ll be speaking about him this Saturday btw, please join me!) Very much like Lewis, Sandler is a terrific actor when he gets a director he respects and trusts, who can guide him to a true performance.
But as you know, Sandler didn’t precisely go off and become the new Olivier. We’re talking about a half dozen movies. Most of the ones since Punch-Drunk-Love built on Sandler’s newly earned respect but still aspired to mass success, which in Hollywood means middlebrow at best. Some were remakes of classics and near-classics, such as Mr. Deeds (2002), The Longest Yard (2004), and Just Go With It (2011, a remake of Cactus Flower). Most were rom-coms or buddy movies with some outre high concept element reminiscent of his older films but with slightly deeper characterization and “heart”, usually teaming him with major stars. These included Anger Management (2003) with Jack Nicholson, 50 First Dates (2004) and Blended (2014) with Drew Barrymore, Click (2006) with Kate Beckinsale and Christopher Walken, Grown Ups (2010 with a 2013 sequel), and Just Go With It (2011) and Murder Mystery (2019) with Jennifer Aniston. There are also his family comedies Bedtime Stories (2008) and the Hotel Transylvania trilogy (2012-2018).
A couple of his recent entries, Pixels, and The Ridiculous 6, both 2015, are bad enough that they seem like throwbacks to Sandler’s early career. Still, I think mentioning that “many of Sandler’s films are critically panned” in a capsule description of his career, as many do, is NOT fairly representative of his body of work at this point. Many of his films are critically panned, many are critically acclaimed, and many are “meh”. Which makes him not the slightest bit unusual.
On the other hand, I think some people may have formed their negative opinions of him in reaction to what seems like undeserved, superannuated success. His movies have made billions — billions with a B — of dollars, and he has gotten massively rich, both from his acting and screenwriting salaries and profits as a producer. On top of that (I’ll just say it) he has gotten a bit scary. Somewhere in there, he got buff and muscular, and thick-necked, and he plays these angry characters and now he’s a scowling old middle-aged man and he’s scary. He married a supermodel and he is (or at least was at one point) a Republican, and so there’s a little bit of a perception of a monster of some sort being unleashed. He was this mousy dude with a high-pitched voice. Now he looks like he’s going to break your legs, or, if he’s feeling lazy, snap his fingers and get his two goons to break your legs. (Again we’re back to Buddy Love). That’s less conducive to comedy, but hey he’s given some GREAT performances in the last couple of years. He doesn’t need to rough anybody up to get respect. He earns it when given the opportunity. And by all accounts, he’s actually a very nice guy. The same people work with again and again, time after time. That’s never the sign of a jerk. A putz maybe, but a jerk, never.