Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Diamond in the rough: is Adam Sandler actually one of the greatest actors of our time?

His latest film has critics raving, but let's not forget that he's also responsible for 'Click'

Adam Sandler starred as George Simmons in 'Funny People', the story of a famous comedian who has a near-death experience. Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Adam Sandler starred as George Simmons in 'Funny People', the story of a famous comedian who has a near-death experience. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Every couple of years, a rare cinematic event occurs that moviegoers ­really should have become accustomed to by now. The first recorded proof of this phenomenon was in 2002, before reappearing in 2004, 2007, 2009, and even as recently as 2017.

The anomaly in question is that every few years Adam Sandler decides to put his broad comedic shtick to one side and remind the world how good an actor he really is. This year is one of those occasions because Uncut Gems, in which the comedian stars as a jewellery dealer for the rich and famous, received rave reviews when it had its premiere last month at the Telluride Film Festival, with Sandler’s performance coming in for particularly strong praise.

Adam Sandler's performance in 'Uncut Gems', in which he plays a jewellery dealer for the rich and famous, has received rave reviews. Photo: Supplied
Adam Sandler's performance in 'Uncut Gems', in which he plays a jewellery dealer for the rich and famous, has received rave reviews. Photo: Supplied

Uncut Gems, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, who also collaborated on 2017 thriller Good Time, has received such strong plaudits that it has a score of 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, while several think pieces, social media posts and podcast proclamations suggesting Sandler is a genuine candidate for a Best Actor Oscar nomination have started to surface, too.

The evolution of Adam Sandler

We’ve heard this all before, though. It was loudest in 2002, when, after the success of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson began working on 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, writing the part of Barry Egan especially for Sandler.

Before starring in the dark romantic comedy, he had already confirmed his status as the most popular comedian in Hollywood. Sandler was hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 1990 at the age of 23 and spent five years on the show, before starring in films such as Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996) and Bulletproof (1996), with each movie ­steadily increasing his popularity with mainstream audiences.

'Big Daddy' proved Adam Sandler had comedic talent, but not necessarily that he could act. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
'Big Daddy' proved Adam Sandler had comedic talent, but not necessarily that he could act. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

He truly exploded on to the scene in 1998, when The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy both hit cinemas and grossed a combined total of $309 million (Dh1.13 billion). In 1999, Big Daddy dwarfed their individual hauls on its own by taking in $234.8m.

So if audiences love him, where are the awards?

Sandler did suffer a dip in fortunes when Little Nicky (2000) made only $58.3m at the box office. But this was forgotten when Sandler was rightfully lauded for his performance in Punch-Drunk Love as the emotionally stunted but still deeply loving Egan, who has to grapple with his identity being stolen and extortion while falling in love with Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard.

Sandler missed out on an Oscar nomination as Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage and eventual winner Adrien Brody were all preferred, but the comedian was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, and won the Best Actor award at the Gijon International Film Festival.

Sandler was rightfully lauded for his performance in 'Punch Drunk Love'. Courtesy Sony Pictures
Sandler was rightfully lauded for his performance in 'Punch Drunk Love'. Courtesy Sony Pictures

In a hugely positive review of Sandler’s performance in the Chicago Sun-Times, renowned film critic Roger Ebert was so in awe of the “uncharted depths” Sandler mined for Punch-Drunk Love, the writer concluded his piece by saying, “[Sandler] can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?”

Some Sandler films can be classed as 'unmitigated cinematic atrocities'

Unfortunately for Ebert, the recognition Sandler received for Punch-Drunk Love didn’t convince the comedian to focus his obvious talents on drama and more intimate character-driven work. Instead, Sandler’s increasingly tired and dull comedies went on to easily outweigh his more nuanced and interesting acting roles.

For every Spanglish, Reign Over Me, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), audiences had to endure The Longest Yard, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2, and The Ridiculous 6, as well as the unmitigated cinematic atrocities that were Jack & Jill and That’s My Boy, both of which should be avoided like the plague.

'Jack & Jill' is another Sandler film probably best avoided. Courtesy Columbia Pictures
'Jack & Jill' is another Sandler film probably best avoided. Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Here’s the thing, though. Despite the fact Sandler has received more awards and nominations at the Razzies, an annual event that celebrates the worst in cinema, than anyone else in Hollywood history apart from Sylvester Stallone, there’s a good reason why directors of the ilk of Anderson, James L Brooks, Judd Apatow, Tom McCarthy, Chris Colombus, Noah Baumbach and the Safdie brothers have offered Sandler leading roles.

Why we should all give Sandler a chance

Few actors can play aggression, frustration and sadness quite like Sandler. In Punch-Drunk Love that is portrayed physically, as we see Egan break a window, get into fist fights and then run away like a lost dog, while repeatedly having to put up with the verbal abuse he receives from his seven overbearing sisters.

In 'The Meyerowitz Stories', Sandler plays both volatile and melancholy pitch perfectly. Courtesy Netflix
In 'The Meyerowitz Stories', Sandler plays both volatile and melancholy pitch perfectly. Courtesy Netflix

In Brooks’ Spanglish, though, Sandler’s put-upon husband John is much more submissive and pensive, and there’s even a quiet thoughtfulness to the performance.

It is in Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Apatow’s Funny People that Sandler plays both volatile and melancholy pitch perfectly. Released in 2009, Funny People is now mostly remembered for its gruelling 150-minute run time.

But as George Simmons, Sandler manages to make the deeply flawed comedian-­turned-movie star a sympathetic character. In The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler outperforms more celebrated co-stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson whenever he is on screen, not only by exploding in anger but also by simply delivering the perfect look, glance or pause for the moment.

With Uncut Gems to be screened in cinemas from December – a trailer has not even been released yet – most moviegoers are still not exactly sure how Sandler will lead the way as the compulsive gambler that suddenly has to pay off his debts when his merchandise is taken.

But with Indiewire insisting that Sandler is at his most “obnoxious” and “self-absorbed” and that he “runs wild,” and Variety also calling his turn “unhinged,” it sounds as though the role has the potential to show off an even darker side to his talents.

If his performance can build on or even eclipse what he has achieved in more dramatic roles before, then who knows, we might even be able to forgive him for Jack & Jill.

Updated: September 12, 2019 11:18 AM

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