Adam Sandler: Comic Genius
Plus: a 'Crime' assigned!
It never occurred to me while I was listening to Adam Sandler portray a cranky, elderly Toll Booth operator named Willie who threatened rude patrons with grievous bodily harm on his comedy album They’re All Gonna Laugh at You! that I was in the auditory presence of a genuine American comic genius. And yet, middle-school me—desperately stifling high-pitched guffaws as I covertly listened to my Discman on the back of that middle school bus nearly 30 years ago—likely wouldn’t have been surprised that this here was a talent in league with Mark Twain himself.
After all, there’s not an 11-year-old on this planet who finds The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn funnier than “The Beating of a High School Janitor” or “Lunchlady Land.”
All of which is to say that Adam Sandler is more than deserving of being awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Joining past winners like Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, George Carlin, Bill Murray, and Dave Chappelle, Sandler’s career has spanned decades, conquered multiple mediums, and enraptured audiences with brows high and low alike, sometimes ushering the low into a greater appreciation of the high.
Sandler’s triumph here feels weirdly personal to me, as I’m sure it does many in my age cohort. He was one of the first Saturday Night Live stars I remember, though I didn’t really start watching the show until a couple of years later. His comedy CDs, stamped with the parental advisory sticker as they were, were practically underground gold. Billy Madisonand Happy Gilmore were lunatic delights, a perfect mix of low rude humor and delightful earnestness.
He kept working and kept aging up, yet maintained the same man-child spirit that animated his earlier pictures. Movies like Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer were still funny and still sometimes absurd but they were a bit more grounded.
But Punch-Drunk Love changed how we saw him. Sandler’s collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson—in which he plays the neurodivergent Barry Egan, a man trying to find love who is constantly henpecked by his sisters, the suppressed rage emerging at oft-inopportune times—was the first time folks got a glimpse at Serious Sandler, who would appear again from time to time in flicks like Spanglish and Hustle. And most of us liked what we saw.
That mode of work reached its apotheosis in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems—that he didn’t even get a best actor nomination from the Oscars is just one more reason why people have stopped caring about the Academy Awards—but I still think his crowning actorly achievement is Judd Apatow’s Funny People. It is the film in which he most directly wrestles with the idea of Adam Sandler and the struggle between being taken seriously and being written off as a joke, the fear of giving up familial love for empty material success. To my mind it remains his most profound work. (It’s also, as far as I know, the only film to ever have a Sonny Bunch blurb on the back cover of the DVD/Blu-ray. That’s how you know it’s great.)
But Sandler is a smart businessman as well as an uncannily intuitive comic artist. Understanding that the box office fortunes of comedies writ large were in decline—and that his fanbase was, shall we say, aging out of the theatrical experience—he was one of the first big names to sign a huge deal with Netflix. He signed with the streaming company back in 2014 for $250 million to make four movies. The deal was renewed for a similar sum in 2020.
Sandler is worth so much to the folks at Netflix because the people who pay for Netflix subs love him. The streamer said that subscribers had spent more than two billion hours watching his movies as of 2020. Murder Mystery was the streamer’s fifth-most-watched film of 2019. Hubie Halloween was a massive hit as well. These are precisely the sort of movies that are a.) entertaining but not exactly b.) event experiences. You watch them at home on a night when you’re trying to find something to watch. Perfect Netflix fare, in other words.
This deal is great for both Netflix and Sandler because it doesn’t restrict Sandler from appearing in non-Netflix productions. Uncut Gems was an A24 movie and, in addition to being an awards-season darling, it was also the highest-grossing A24 film of all time, domestically, until the release of Everything Everywhere All at Once this year.
The Sandman’s still a box office draw, even if the material has changed a bit.
Make sure to check out Across the Movie Aisle’s bonus episode on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, on Netflix now. It’s a tear-jerker and yet more proof that stop-motion is the most interesting form of animation out there right now.
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Avatar: The Way of Water hits theaters this weekend. I tried to explain why the movie looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
I feel kind of bad for Henry Cavill: DC teased his return as Superman at the end of Black Adam and he left The Witcher at least in part because he wanted to keep his calendar clear for another Superman movie only to have James Gunn tell him “Eh, sorry bro.”
Patty Jenkins is also out as the director of the next Wonder Woman movie, which leads me to believe that Gal Gadot is likely done in the role.
I don’t know if I’m going to write fully on The Whale, but I hope if I do write something about the movie it’s not as blinkered as this piece by Roxanne Gay. I think some critics are making a mistake by categorizing this as “a movie about a morbidly obese man” instead of “a movie about one of Darren Aronofsky’s self-destructive obsessives who happens to be morbidly obese.” There’s a difference between the two!
Can’t be said enough that the biggest problem facing movie theaters right now isn’t COVID or even competition from streaming, it’s simply the dearth of new product on big screens:
Assigned Viewing: Crimes of the Future (Hulu)
I try not to assign things I’ve already reviewed, but I was glad to see Crimes of the Future top Film Comment’s best-of listand it’s streaming on Hulu now, so I figured why not. I don’t think it’s the best movie of the year but I do think it’s been getting snubbed a bit in the year-end conversation. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder for folks to check it out.