Adam Sandler, I Now Pronounce You… A Comic Genius

Pop Culture

Adam Sandler, I Now Pronounce You… A Comic Genius

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Adam Sandler has been professionally funny for longer than I’ve been alive, and despite what popular consensus might have you believe, he’s gotten surprisingly good at it. He started out on NBC’s comedy institution Saturday Night Live in 1990; nearly 30 years later, Sandler is still enjoying his status as one of, if not the most, successful mainstream comedians in Hollywood. Along the way, he’s gathered more negative reviews than a pork chop at a vegan restaurant, but the only thing Adam Sandler is better at than making millions of dollars at the box office is shrugging off the barbs of critics. Like so many of the dim-yet-endearing characters he’s played over the years, he has either refused or is unable to change to suit the world – reshaping it in his own simplistic, but also infinitely complex image instead.

With Sandler, it’s hard to tell whether his work is the result of art imitating life or the other way round. He excels at essaying a very particular archetype – the idiot savant, which is translated from the French term for “knowledgeable idiot”. The characters he plays are slow on the uptake, yet possessed of either preternatural skill or unworldly good fortune (or both), and also prone to flashes of blinding brilliance. These traits, visible in almost every Sandler role from 1995’s Billy Madison to 2019’s Murder Mystery, could just as easily be applied to the actor as well as the parts he has played in a decades-spanning career.

Fame and fortune found their way to Sandler via broad comedies that shamelessly catered to the lowest common denominator, but the grinning goof is a façade that conceals a much more astute performer. On Rotten Tomatoes, where aggregated movie reviews determine a film’s rating as “fresh” or “rotten”, there’s no prizes for guessing what majority of Sandler’s films scored. Yet despite his work trending more toward rotten than fresh, the man himself blissfully exists at the intersection between the two. If you had a Venn diagram with two circles labelled “classy” and “massy”, the overlapping area would be marked “Adam Sandler”.

This classification of Sandler as a genuinely gifted actor is at odds with his mostly juvenile output. In 2000, the new millennium did not look like it was going to be kind to Sandler’s career. He had his first commercial setback in that year with Little Nicky, which kicked off a run of formulaic offerings that yielded varying returns. This period, which also saw Sandler admit that he chooses movie scripts based on which destinations he wants to holiday in, was marked by bland, cookie-cutter joints that cast a shadow on the legacy of his earlier classics, like Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer. As the 2000s rolled on into the 2010s, it seemed like the Dark Ages of Adam Sandler would never end, which is why it’s even more remarkable that we’re now living in the age of the Adam Sandler Renaissance.

In August 2015, after the back-to-back flops of Blended and Pixels, the UK edition of The Telegraph carried a feature on Sandler that began with the sentence, “Adam Sandler’s career died last week.” But even as commentators were writing eulogies for Sandler’s career as a box office draw, the man who made a name out of playing stubborn, unchanging characters underwent a timely evolution. About a year earlier, in October 2014, Sandler had inked a deal with Netflix that would allow him to draw from a well he rarely tapped, a well whose water would transform him from a popular clown to a critical darling.

There was 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, where director Paul Thomas Anderson introduced the world to Adam Sandler, the actor, after we had already taken Adam Sandler, the comedian, for granted.

That Netflix deal, after a few initial misfires (looking at you, The Ridiculous 6), saw Sandler star alongside Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), where his nuanced performance reminded us that underneath the slapstick antics hid an artist capable of doing wonderful things. That year, a Vice feature titled “Actually, Adam Sandler is a Genius” hit the nail on the head with the author’s evaluation of his career: “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.”

Sandler’s turn in The Meyerowitz Stories brought to mind all the other occasions where he has traded in goofball humour for acting chops. There was 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, where director Paul Thomas Anderson introduced the world to Adam Sandler, the actor, after we had already taken Adam Sandler, the comedian, for granted. Even at his creative nadir in 2009, he had the self-awareness to star in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, a cutting meta-commentary on his own life where he plays a Sandleresque comedian coasting by on low-effort projects, much to his own existential dread. And he followed up Stories with a Netflix stand-up special titled 100% Fresh (a dig at his detractors on Rotten Tomatoes), where he does what’s unthinkable for a comedian in this day and age – release a special that’s focussed on telling jokes and making people laugh, rather than providing a critique of society. As luck would have it, Rotten Tomatoes awarded the special the “fresh” rating.

From being labelled a washed-up has-been in 2015, to becoming the most-watched star on Netflix in four years, Sandler has proved that he is an entertainer with hidden depths. According to Netflix’s 2017 shareholders’ report, members have spent more than half a billion hours streaming Sandler’s content. His carefree approach to making breezy comedies makes him a perfect fit for the portal, and his ability to toggle on artistic credibility is just a bonus. As Rob Harvilla wrote in The Ringer, “No man is more indomitably himself than Adam Sandler; few comedians of any era have created a wider gulf between popular demand and critical dismay.”

Since it’s his birthday today, let’s hold back the sneers for once and recognise that Adam Sandler is the gift that keeps on giving. Or maybe I’m guilty at putting too much thought into this; Sandler certainly doesn’t. Maybe his prodigious rise to success and prolonged stay the showbiz’s summit isn’t due to some hidden genius. Maybe this entire 30-year saga comes down to what he said in Billy Madison all those years ago: “I kinda feel like an idiot. Although, I am an idiot, so it kinda works out.”