Is Adam Sandler one of the best actors alive?

Lucien Waugh Daly

Although his name sits only at 49th place on BoxOfficeMojo’s list of the highest-grossing actors (the price of never starring in a superhero or sci-fi blockbuster, one reckons), there are few movie stars that have captured a personal brand and unique style of project like the inimitable Adam Sandler.

In the late 90s and through the 2000s he seemed undefeatable as, with contemporaries Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy, one of the definitive comedy stars of the era; a modern day Walter Matthau with significantly more toilet humour. His run of hugely popular vehicles in the 1990s – Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison – peaked with Big Daddy, a film set almost entirely on one apartment that grossed $234,801,895 off of Sandler’s name appeal: that’s more money than Mad Max: Fury Road, Die Another Die or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Just to watch Adam Sandler yell at a crying child.

But nobody yells like Adam Sandler. His particular enraged energy has on several occasions been put to great use by some of America’s most interesting filmmakers, who have harnessed Sandler’s innate sadness and anger to create compelling portraits of men in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The first director to recognise the potential for a great dramatic Sandler performance was Paul Thomas Anderson: 2003’s Punch-Drunk Love is nothing short of a masterpiece, a low-fi rom-com that pits Sandler against the acting might of Philip Seymour Hoffman and strips back his screen persona to the bare basics. He delivers a beautiful performance that would – from an actor with less industry stigma attached – have undoubtedly received an Oscar nomination.

2006’s Reign Over Me is a little too on-the-nose: Sandler’s character is a depressed New Yorker who lost his family on 9/11 and travels the city on an electric scooter, who befriends Don Cheadle and slowly reveals his suffering through the music of The Who. It’s a brash performance in an unsubtle film, but absolutely worth a watch.

Three years later, Sandler’s old comrade Judd Apatow cast him as aging stand-up George Simmons in his epic black comedy Funny People. Simmons is diagnosed with cancer at the start of the two-and-a-half hour film, hires a sprightly Seth Rogen as his personal assistant, and the men develop a friendship through writing jokes as Simmons tries to reconnect with his ex-wife (Leslie Mann).

Funny People is a superb, quasi-biographical use of Sandler that demonstrates both his crude, immature comedic side and the more intense thespian of Punch-Drunk Love. Its supporting cast includes Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza and Jason Schwartzman (who also composed the score). At time of writing it’s available on Netflix, so I’d recommend that you sit down this weekend and watch it.

More recently, Sandler has been cast in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) with Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman, and the upcoming Safdie Brothers thriller Uncut Gems, executively produced by Martin Scorsese, which is undoubtedly the most exciting Sandler movie of the last ten years.

While he’s fallen into a self-imposed rut of sameness on Netflix, churning out mildly-amusing but totally unmemorable broad comedies and keeping his friends (Kevin James, David Spade) employed, pausing every few years for a Hotel Transylvania or two, Sandler in a good movie, playing a three-dimensional character, is always an exciting prospect.

Lucien Waugh Daly

Image Credit: Gillian Hogan