The perennial fool has fashioned a career out of playing stupid. But is that secretly smart?
With Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Adam Sandler has given another performance which makes you ask: wait, is Adam Sandler actually brilliant?
A low-brow comedy ingénue who skyrocketed to blockbuster success with a string of formulaic family comedies, Sandler’s brand eventually turned self-cannibalistic, tedious, and infuriating—yet, remained profitable. In the shadow of the Happy Madison factory, however, is a Wonka-like figure whose abilities are misunderstood.
To me, Sandler remains one of the most enigmatic performers of his generation: a man that can star in Punch Drunk Love and Mr. Deeds in the same year. It’s easy to hate the cynical dreck he’s put out, and his hacky performances therein. The critical consensus has long been that he’s an exploitative putz mysteriously capable of sublime dramatic performances when goaded by the right director. He coasts by on the bare minimum then occasionally whips out a performance worthy of a young Al Pacino.
Sandler is often framed as an irritating sell-out. Critics see him as a contradictory figure who has chosen the for-profit path of lower-middle brow pap. He doesn’t have the art-house sensibilities of his peers Wilson and Stiller, and if he does, he’s willfully and mostly chosen to ignore them. This is Sandler at his most infuriatingly enigmatic. The critical discourse around him is as irked by his lame CGI sight-gags as it is by what they interpret as his turning away from untapped genius and “depth.”
The anxiety we feel over Sandler is reductive, but I’d say it bumps up against what makes him one of the most alluring figures in modern film. He is the patron saint of annoyance. What Jimmy Stewart was to befuddlement, and Jack Lemmon was to desperation, Adam Sandler is to confused and frustrated rage. From tediously dead-eyed and peeved, to vocal chord-fraying window-smasher, Sandler is like no one else when it comes to channeling an undercurrent of atavistic anger.
Within this spectrum of annoyance, Adam Sandler is a master, and by pushing against its boundaries we can come to see his appeal as a performer. I think a lot about Sandler’s 2011 film Jack and Jill. It may be the worst film of the century, and when I saw it in the cinema, my friend threw his jumbo soda at the screen, to applause.
The film represents Sandler at his absolute worst; he and Katie Holmes compete for a bleakest-thousand-yard-stare award in this film,and the most lively moment comes from a CGI cockatoo bathing in fondue. Still, in the twin roles of Jack and Jill, we see the extremes of Sandler’s humming frustration: the quiet corner-mouth cynicism of Jack, pitted against Jill’s spastic and screeching dick jokes. Here we see the far poles of Sandler’s aesthetic: the irritated putz and the explosive schlub.
Sandler’s golden age, on the other hand, is unimpeachable. Between Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and The Waterboy, Sandler swept through the late 90s like a hurricane, arguably dethroning Mike Myers and Jim Carrey as the kings of big studio comedy. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore were released back to back in 1995 and 1996, respectively, and they embody the fullness of Sandler’s inscrutable irritability.
The character of Billy Madison is the naïve oaf in the mold of Jill, a scenery-chewing cartoon whose unreality clashes with that of the world around him. Yet Billy eventually finds “maturity,” and in terms of subtlety Sandler glides the character from a Spinal Tap amp-level of 11 to somewhere around a 4 level of subtlety. You see this transition between the moment with Billy in the bath, where he turns to the swan-shaped tap and grumpily intones, “Stop looking at me swan!,” and during the academic decathlon in the film’s climax, where after being told that “everyone in this room is now dumber” for having listened to him, Billy responds: “Okay, a simple wrong would have done just fine.”
Sandler’s nod and quick walk away after that line is a brilliant encapsulation of the anxiety he operates within, and that passes over to Happy Gilmore, where Billy’s self-doubting idiocy transforms into full-blown sucker-punching fury. In Sandler’s greatest performances, his characters use anhedonia to temper their white hot rage. In Meyerowitz, the anger outruns the sadness after he’s slipped some amphetamines; in Happy Gilmore, it’s triggered by the frustrations of golf. The scene in which Happy “couldn’t get the ball in the hole” and proceeds to jersey and cold-clock a bystander may be the purest moment of Sandler’s explosive annoyance.
Happy Gilmore succeeds where other, later Sandler comedies don’t: it showcases that he’s at his best when walking a razor’s edge between anxious confusion and violent irritation. He’s wound up, and his only release is to wind others up. That becomes the audience’s release, too—a core tension that is what, dare I say it, makes Adam Sandler great.
From Billy Madison to Meyerowitz, there’s a bucolic American hue to Sandler’s outbursts. His later, self-produced comedies fail because they’re self-indulgent and lazy to the point where we’re watching a wealthy man who’s bought into the cynicism of his brand. Sandler’s at his best when he taps his roots as a schmuck who somehow dirty joked his way out of a meaninglessness—when his desperation brings frustration, rage, and urgency to the fore. He’s annoyed and annoying, and within that lies Sandler’s allure.