Tom Jolliffe looks at Adam Sandler’s successful forays into drama…
When you get a name for yourself doing something, it becomes difficult to shake off that label. When Robert De Niro had been so well known as gangsters, maniacs or tough guys, his ventures into comedy were initially surprising. When it comes to Adam Sandler, the stand-up, turned SNL star, turned movie star has become synonymous with shlub comedy. He’s often the under-achieving, every-man hero getting one over against the nemesis of more privilege.
Sandler began with sleeper hits in a booming MTV era comedy market that saw guys like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley and Pauly Shore (yes, I totally just referenced Pauly Shore) being pushed as the next big thing. That period between 90-96 seemed to have huge swathes of new comedy stars arriving, at a time when perhaps the audiences for Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Rick Moranis, Chevy Chase etc, didn’t seem to be striking as well as their 80’s heyday. So Sandler created the young shlub, underachiever, and inactive bum hero (with the occasional failure to control his rage) routine which has pretty much stuck with him through to middle-age. Whilst initial outings hit the mark with films like Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison and particularly The Wedding Singer, his reluctance to step away from formula led to a new century that still pleased fans (he was a huge box office draw for over a decade, spanning the mid 90’s until the beginning of the recent decade) but was leaving non-fans, and critics a little alienated. It got to a point, if you’d seen one Sandler romantic comedy, you’d seen them all.
During those early periods of success, to the point at the century’s turn where Sandler was boxoffice gold, one thing never quite entered the thinking of too many…could Sandler be an engaging dramatic actor? He was successful, and largely good at what he did (which almost seemed to be walking on set as himself) but was he ‘an actor?’ Critics didn’t seem to think so. It was in 2002 when Paul Thomas Anderson, riding high from Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and already being hailed the ‘new Tarantino’ that Sandler was given an opportunity to spread his dramatic wings. There were elements of some of his comedic characters there. He was kind of shat upon, and un-reactive, life passing him by but prone to uncontrollable fits of rage. Only this time, under Paul Thomas Anderson, it was played less for laughs and more for intensity. It crafted a complex and unbalanced character, who just wanted to get by easily, but couldn’t control himself when he couldn’t control external matters.
Punch Drunk Love surprised people, not least critics who had staunchly dug their heels in as far as their opinion on Sandler. Back-tracking was the order of the day. Mark Kermode was famously already tired of Sandler’s shtick and lazily constructed films by the beginning of the century. Such was his surprise at how good the film was, and indeed Sandler in it, he ended up introducing it at a retrospective screening.
Of course Sandler quickly returned to formula and continued on. A few steps away would follow, most notably Judd Apatow’s Funny People, which was merely a semi-step from routine. Eventually as cinema audiences tired of Sandler (in no small part due to the fact that the ‘man child’ routine is less funny with a guy pushing 50) he made a significant move to Netflix. It was here where Sandler captured a ready and waiting audience, regularly releasing new films, and largely staying true to his shtick, often garnering massive viewing figures. In principal, Netflix should allow for a little room to experiment without such significant fear as box office receipts always pulling an artist back from a daring leap of faith. Unfortunately between dross like Sandy Wexler, The Ridiculous 6 (a career low), The Do-Over and The Week Of, Sandler only really broke away from routine with The Meyeroritz Stories, a Noah Baumbach film that put Sandler alongside Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in an indie comedy with some dramatic weight. Again, like Punch Drunk Love, he stepped up to the challenge with aplomb and showed some range.
Any thoughts that he was done branching out have been put to be following Sandler’s jump into the world of the Safdie Brothers. A rising directorial tour-de-force in Indie cinema, the Safdie’s have already gained the adoration of critics for their energetic, pulsating, gritty and edgy cinema. In fact it is a Safdie film which many Robert Pattinson defenders pointed to as evidence to the message board courts, that Patz would make a good Batman. Good Time was a one night, non-stop thriller that saw Pattinson get increasingly caught up in a spiralling situation of his own making. The energy was relentless and Pattinson is exceptional in the film. He’d actively sought the directors with the express desire of working with them too and it seems that they will continue to be in demand as directors, actors are dying to work with.
In Uncut Gems, which has already gathered strong festival responses and has just dropped an epically good trailer, Sandler is a jewellery dealer, amassing big debts and finding himself in a dangerous situation with little time to dig himself out. Much like Good Time, the film looks frenetic as a spiralling situation gets increasingly out of control of our protagonist (mix in a pinch of, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). Here’s the thing, there will be some comedy in it and Sandler is playing a bit of a shlub…however, under the Safdie gaze, there will be depth and it won’t come down to dumb shlub luck to get himself out of it. Much like P.T.A they are tapping into Sandler’s strengths, to craft a character with more interesting weaknesses for him to dig into and create a three dimensional character, and if the early buzz is to believed, Sandler might even be an Oscar contender.
Sandler will undoubtedly come back to standard comedy fare. It’s his bread and butter, but as an actor now well into his 50’s, the flexibility to successfully branch out will undoubtedly allow him more options and as more great film-makers take note, they may indeed see something that P.T.A or the Safdies saw in Sandler and take the gamble on him.
Are you looking forward to Uncut Gems? How do you rate Sandler’s dramatic ventures so far? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/