I haven’t seen an Adam Sandler movie since 2009. That was when the former Saturday Night Live cast member teamed up with Judd Apatow for Funny People, a semi-biographical take on Sandler’s life and career up to that point. The biggest sin Funny People committed was fooling people into thinking it was a comedy. Though there were laughs to be had (admittedly, not a ton), it was a much more personal and sobering examination of the life of comedians than audiences were expecting. It also laid bare that Adam Sandler was well aware of what he and his persona had become, and he wasn’t happy about it.
In the film, Sandler’s character is a successful comedian turned actor who is diagnosed with leukemia. Facing death, he decides he wants to return to his stand-up comedy roots. This sentiment is driven home when a videotape of a young Sandler making a prank call plays over the opening credits. The film goes on to take self-aware jabs at the low-brow films Sandler had become popular for, and the realization dawns that Adam Sandler isn’t an idiot; he knows what people think and expect of him, and Funny People was his opportunity to explore and comment on that.
And it failed, at least in a commercial sense. It was Judd Apatow’s lowest box office earner (and looks to remain that way), only recouping about two-thirds of its reported budget. The critical response was down the middle, inciting neither huge endorsements or vicious derision. Adam Sandler had opened himself up to the world, and from his perspective the world could barely muster up a shrug of indifference.
It’s at this moment that Sandler fully embraced the concept that audiences believed him to be, and became one of the most reviled actors working today. His films are almost guaranteed to be ridiculed and disparaged (as of this writing, his newest film, Pixels, has a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes), even though they continue to find financing and produce a decent return. Sandler has admitted that he’s utilized films for the sake of traveling to exotic locales (Blended, Just Go With It), and the inflated budget and copious product placement in something like Jack & Jill shows that Sandler has figured out how to take home the biggest paycheck possible while putting forth the most minimal of effort.
And you know what? I kind of understand where he’s coming from.
To be clear, this doesn’t excuse the terrible films he’s made or the behavior towards show business that he’s adapted, but it isn’t without some level of understanding. After putting himself out there in the most honest way an actor could, the uncaring response from audiences brought out a childish rebellion in Sandler. He gave us the finger and decided to play this game his way, the consumer be damned.
The most frustrating aspect of this whole scenario doesn’t have to do with Sandler’s actions or the quality of his output. It has to do with the fact that Adam Sandler is a genuinely talented and intelligent performer who has mostly given up on using his talents for anything except pure monetary gain, and is doing so in the most blatantly antagonistic way available to him.
Most people will point to his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love, as the one indicator of Sandler’s propensity for delivering a worthwhile performance, and they’d be right to do so. Punch-Drunk Love is just as self-aware of Adam Sandler as Funny People, but instead of examining the fame and lifestyle of Sandler, Anderson decided to pick apart the mannerisms and state of mind that informed all of Sandler’s comedic characters. It dissects the sadness at the core of every (good) comedian, and turns what was once funny into something far more complex and uncomfortably human.
You could make a case for Sandler based on Punch-Drunk Love alone, but there’s more worth examining in his filmography. Though they will assuredly be grating to some, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore feature an Adam Sandler who wholeheartedly embraces the manic energy and surreal abrasiveness that made him stand out during his tenure on Saturday Night Live. Compared to the passive demeanor present in most of his films, these two stick out in an enormous way.
And then there’s Reign Over Me. While the movie as a whole might not hold up, Sandler’s performance as a lonely man mentally devastated from losing his family due to the attack on the Twin Towers is proof that he isn’t some talentless hack. There are scenes of gut-wrenching grief that brought the tragedy of 9/11 down to a strictly personal and far more relatable level than films like World Trade Center or United 93.
For the longest time, Sandler was attached to play Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and a big part of me hopes that Sandler’s relationship with Tarantino is still strong today. Seeing Sandler pop up in a role that no one expects from him is what needs to happen to remind the world that there is a fantastic actor buried underneath all of the disinterest and disdain.
Maybe that will never happen. If it doesn’t, it’ll be unfortunate for a multitude of reasons. Not only will we continue to be subjected to garbage films that Adam Sandler has no true passion for, but the world will be robbed of a performer who has all the ability and clout to do something truly special. I get why the failure of Funny People turned Sandler into a vindictive superstar, and that’s why I’m not angry at him. I am disappointed that he hasn’t gotten over that failure and resolved to show the world that when he cares, he’s capable of a whole lot more than most people give him credit for.