Adam Sandler is a good actor, full stop. No amount of terrible Netflix movies can change that. Good actors are in bad movies all the time, though admittedly, few have a body of work so largely reviled by critics as Sandler. And few take so active a hand in creating those reviled works: he’s credited as a co-writer and producer on most of his comedic vehicles. Perhaps that’s why critics seem so surprised every time he turns in a good performance in a good movie, the latest instance being this year’s nerve-fraying, live-wire thriller Uncut Gems, which has earned Sandler the most serious Oscar buzz of his career.
They shouldn’t be so surprised, though. Besides abundant evidence for Sandler’s “serious actor” bona fides (his dramatic turns reliably draw praise, even when the movies around them don’t), you can see his dramatic potential in his comedic work, particularly his (relatively) well-liked early films, with minimal squinting required. Sandler is one of those actors who possess a unique magnetism onscreen and can endear themselves through seemingly effortless charisma, no matter how theoretically irritating or off-putting or downright despicable their character. (Think of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own or Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
This is something Uncut Gems directors Josh and Benny Safdie must have realized when they cast Sandler as protagonist Howard Ratner. Howard is a fast-talking wheeler-dealer and compulsive gambler who thoroughly repulses almost everyone in his life, but who quickly and easily earns viewers’ affection through Sandlerian charm. You come to love Howard, even as you want to grab him and yell, “What are you doing?!?”
This is not unique to the movie or role. Sandler’s made a career of playing shrill, obnoxious man-children, going all the way back to 1995’s Billy Madison, which established the Adam Sandler Movie template. Billy is a spoiled, immature brat, whose behavior is so unrepentantly irritating that he should alienate viewers immediately. Judging by the film’s reviews, he alienated plenty, and I, too, was expecting to be one of those viewers when my friends forced me to watch Billy Madison for the first time recently.
Instead, I found myself utterly fascinated whenever Sandler was onscreen. Though none of his signature schticks — his high-pitched sing-song, his silly voices, his petulant anger — are particularly funny to me, there’s irresistible energy to his performance, energy that seems to be calling out for the right material to harness and channel it. There’s no one specific example of why; it’s not any particular thing Sandler does so much as, simply, him. Take this scene, for instance (start about 50 seconds in):
It’s all right there. In two minutes of screen time, Sandler displays many of the qualities we want in our best screen actors — full-commitment physicality, expressiveness, impeccable timing (sure, the editing helps, but watch that long take where he turns from one kid to the other), and a commanding screen presence. I came away from Billy Madison thinking, “I get it” — “it” being why people love Sandler so much, and why writer-directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love) or Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) or the Safdies would think, “I can use that.”
Anderson has made no secret of his love for Sandler and his comedies. His 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love — Sandler’s first venture into an artsier territory, playing the melancholic, off-kilter Barry Egan — knowingly riffs on Sandler-movie tropes, even including a sly nod to Billy Madison’s love of pudding. Most notably, it puts a dramatic spin on the actor’s trademark rage-tantrum seen in movies like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and (naturally) Anger Management, playing Barry’s periodic violent outbursts completely straight.
“When [Sandler] would flip out [in his movies], it appeared, to me, to be a guy who was really flipping out, and who wasn’t faking it, and that there was a darkness,” Anderson said on WTF with Marc Maron in 2014. “And it was so exciting when he would flip out. That when he really did go there, you couldn’t see the whites of his eyes anymore.”
Anderson draws on other sides of Sandler, too. Barry’s hangdog, sad-eyed charm recalls one of Sandler’s first stabs at more dramatic, or at least more emotional, material: 1999’s Big Daddy. That comedy takes Sandler in a slightly different direction, pushing the man-child archetype to grow up, albeit only so much. The film follows Sonny Koufax, another lazy slacker, who adopts a young boy named Julian (Cole and Dylan Sprouse) to impress his girlfriend, only to be stuck with the kid after getting dumped. Predictably, Sonny starts to bond with Julian and eventually must fight for his right to retain custody.
As entertaining as his over-the-top mugging can be, Sandler also plays it straight very well, and his character’s appeal in Big Daddy can once again be pinned on the actor’s natural onscreen charisma. There’s a mean-spirited edge to Sonny, and to a lot of the jokes, that the movie can’t really acknowledge, but damn it, you just can’t help liking him, especially once Julian gets taken away from him. (It also helps that the movie actually does acknowledge Sonny isn’t a very good dad, and that he actually starts trying to be one.) Look at Sandler’s performance in their parting scene:
Manipulative, sure (that score!), but watch Sandler’s face, and you can see the seeds of Barry Egan starting to take root. It would be so easy for him to go over the top here, yet he underplays perfectly, clamping his emotions down for Julian’s sake. Say what you will; to me, Sandler’s restrained sorrow in that last close-up is more effective than a hundred of the free-flowingly weepy moments you usually see in Oscar clips.
Watching these movies, something Josh Safdie told EW comes to mind: “If everyone can just accept that he’s a great actor, that he’s the only person who could make those great, iconic movies — no one else could make Happy Gilmore, only Adam Sandler.”
He’s right. There are few actors, and even fewer Saturday Night Live alums or other comedians, who could achieve the same winning combination of physicality (good Lord, the way Sandler moves on the hockey rink in Gilmore) and turn-on-a-dime emotional shifts. (For instance, Bill Hader, excellent on HBO’s Barry, is much more concerned with the latter.) It’s no coincidence that Sandler’s best dramatic showcases utilize these qualities to superb effect. (His character’s pronounced limp and hot temper in Meyerowitz, his incredible phone call with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Punch-Drunk, every manic minute of Gems…)
The counterargument here, I suppose, is that these roles were tailor-made for Sandler and written to fit his personal talents. But that doesn’t change the fact that Sandler is talented. You could say that about any actor with a well-established screen persona; good actors know their limitations and know how to use their strengths to deliver great performances. You wouldn’t cast Sandler as Abraham Lincoln, but that doesn’t erase the brilliance of what he can do. You wouldn’t cast Tom Hanks as Howard Ratner, either.
It’s also another credit to Sandler that he knows exactly how to weaponize his persona with the right role. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t know how much audiences love him, and how he can play on their expectations of him. The well-defined Adam Sandler Character audiences know and love is just another instance of an age-old phenomenon, going back to the movie stars of classic Hollywood, like Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart. Those actors could give brilliant performances within their established personas — In a Lonely Place, or The Maltese Falcon, or 12 Angry Men — or toy with audiences by subverting those personas. (Think Fonda’s great villainous performance in Once Upon a Time in the West.)
The genius of Sandler is that he can somehow do both at once — upending your notions of what he can do by doing it in another context. He’s undeniably a movie star, but he’s also an actor.