From Happy Gilmore To Uncut Gems, We Adore Adam Sandler
On this special birthday, all hail Adam Sandler. From Happy Gilmore to Uncut Gems, he’s modern cinema’s most misunderstood schmuck.
Go to any driving range, anytime, anywhere. Look up and down the greens; somewhere, between the po-faced players, a kid, teen or adult will take a run-up to the tee. You know the source, but this is one component of a larger screen legacy, unduly shrouded by those who blankly dub him a fool.
I say, here’s to the fools who dream. The Sandman, an SNL comic-turned-household name, is a rare talent beyond the affable, bargain-bin charm of his golf swing, sweatpants and basketball shorts. ‘That’s history right there, you understand?’
There’s three key Sandler categories: the glory years, the guilty pleasures and the game-changers. I popped my cherry with Big Daddy, 1999’s winsome father-son flick, laced with (somewhat) iconic moments like pissing against the wall of restaurant, The Kangaroo Song and ‘Frankenstein’s’ mighty long string of saliva.
Raking in money from an injury claim, living in an unfathomable New York apartment with a spiral staircase, impossibly smooth with the ladies, all while dressed in a football jersey or sweatpants. A layabout, yes, but a warm, generous one, with a quick-witted rapport for children and wise guys alike.
A higher point of his early works, Big Daddy slots into the inception of the Sandler persona: the all-American slacker with a slight temper and a big heart, whether it’s Billy Madison, The Wedding Singer or Mr. Deeds.
Happy Gilmore is arguably his greatest success. A box-office hit at $41.2 million, featuring Sandler at his most comically cantankerous. Yet, beneath that aggressive, crude front lay a kind soul, a mainstay of his films. It’s a miracle and testament that something as face-value offensive as The Waterboy wasn’t considered a work of, to quote Kathy Bates’ character, the devil (!).
Unlike some actors, there’s no step off point into oblivion. Hilariously, Sandler has sprinkled woe through his filmography. That said, look at the likes of The Longest Yard, Click – with a third act far better than it had any right to be – and 50 First Dates, the first of many holiday-set comedies, such as the later, lesser Blended and Just Go With It.
You’ve got to give it to the man, his career choices are no burden. During a 2014 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he admitted to wangling paid vacations from his gig.
I have done that since 50 First Dates. It was written in another place. I said: ‘Imagine if we did it in Hawaii, how great that movie would be.’ And they said: ‘Yeah, that’s a very artistic idea.’ I’ve been doing that ever since.
Anger Management, his goofball team-up with Jack Nicholson, is actually a rather witty use of the actor’s trademark on-screen rage. Mostly, these are un-ironically good, beloved darlings of the 2000s. However, with such bankable worldwide appeal, the turkeys began to emerge and the Razzie nominations pour in; from here, we move on to the guilty pleasures.
There’s Little Nicky, a film outdated from the moment of conception, with a sacrilegious conceit, concept and character at its core. In spite of such realities, plus a slaughter of reviews, people fondly remember it. It should be noted that when it comes to Sandler, the press have no impact. He’s critic-proof.
How else does a film like Grown Ups, featuring Sandler, Kevin James, Kevin Spade, Chris Rock and the heathen of good comedy, Rob Schneider, make $271 million at the box-office and spawn a sickeningly terrible sequel? Beneath the schmaltz and predictable humour, the actor’s good vibes permeate across the movie. We’re there for him, his buddies, their laughs.
My absolute worst Sandler confession: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan make me cackle like a hyena, whether it’s Ving Rhames dancing and singing in the shower to I’m Every Woman, or ‘zee bush, is cushion’ and ‘ya manyak!’. These films are grossly written – the former has heinous treatment of the LGBTQ+ community – and even then, through warped nostalgia, I rarely condemn them.
Unfortunately, we must broach the darkness. Dread it, run from it, Jack and Jill arrives all the same; the traumatic, Dunkacino-guzzling sh*t-fest. Different, but related stinkers include That’s My Boy, The Cobbler and Pixels.
Then there’s his chronic Netflix output, borne out of a decade-defining partnership with the streamer. With Happy Madison Productions, he’s unleashed The Ridiculous Six, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery, which is surprisingly watchable – in the US, it was the platform’s most popular film of 2019.
Nevertheless, why would he care about what anybody thinks? While introducing Josh and Benny Safdie at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, he said: ‘All you critics, I know what you have said about me over the years. It’s fine. I have two words to say to you: You’re mean!’
His pragmatic approach to the Hollywood system is admirable, telling The Independent in 2013:
I know what they’re writing about me. I could almost write the piece for them by now. But then remember that I didn’t get into movies to please the critics. I got into it to make people laugh and have fun with my friends.
And that he does. However, the Sandman’s mass-market atrocities aren’t in anyway indicative of the capacity underneath. Look at Funny People, Judd Apatow’s meta-text about the throes of selfish fame, in which he’s rather brilliant. Even Reign Over Me, a melodramatic post-9/11 parable, was telling.
Punch-Drunk Love was the first real peak behind the curtain. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s twisted rom-com, Sandler’s almost the antithesis of George Clooney in Up In The Air; a shifty, self-conscious salesman on a quest for air miles, who happens to meet the love of his life along the way.
His unhinged, emotional breakdowns, once mined for laughs, are compelling, even moving. ‘What is it that’s so appealing about him to so many people? I think he’s this great communicator,’ the director earlier said.
Secondly, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories; a sharply sketched dramedy about a dysfunctional family unit, with Sandler as a limping, likeable dad, not entirely dissimilar to Ethan Hawke in Linklater mode. It’s blissfully natural, formed in the same wheelhouse as his man-child shtick without the juvenile flourishes (okay, maybe a touch, but it’s sweetly balanced).
In late 2019, the actor’s magnum opus shattered audiences into sweaty detritus. Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ anxiety-inducing, gambling potboiler, is a truly remarkable film; propulsive and immersive, with a spellbinding score.
Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a fiendish figure of tragedy; a motor-mouthing, contorting, perennially desperate agent of chaos that can’t hold a break without reaching for the skies. Every move he makes, he crushes us in the palm of his hand. Excruciatingly extraordinary; Uncut Gems is a mesmerising summation of all his ticks and tricks.
It’s the best work Sandler’s ever done, one deserving of an Oscar. Alas, the Academy hung him out to dry. One voter reportedly said: ‘There was an arrogance to him. It’s a lack of respect.’ Another explained: ‘Sandler’s brand doesn’t scream Oscar, but Leo DiCaprio’s and Jonathan Pryce’s do.’
Prior to the snub, he warned the world of the consequences: ‘I’m going to f*cking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay. That’s how I get them.’
With Netflix’s Hubie Halloween on the horizon, he probably wasn’t joking. However, those questioning his shift back to the mundane are missing the point – Sandler is one of the world’s best actors, he just doesn’t care. As Howie said: ‘This is how I win.’
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