Ever since Adam Sandler became a movie star with his smash hits “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” critics hated his humour. But in spite of this, Sandler has found his audience – not just by his man-child persona that he portrays in those aforementioned films, but also slightly more adult roles like in “Anger Management” and “50 First Dates.”
Most of the comedies he made from late 1990s to the 2010s were box office successes, and the people he works with are usually full of praise for him. Paul Thomas Anderson and the Safdie brothers, for example, are fans of some of his comedies, and one can see how his peers like Jennifer Lawrence might love his stuff, as she mentioned on their “Actors on Actors” interview. But at some point, his comedies became more gross and more annoying (“Jack & Jill” anyone?), his shtick was also getting tiresome and outdated, and when he started to work with Netflix, his now far lazier material has turned into total garbage.
It’s understandable that there’s a lot of hate around him, but despite this, once in a while he manages to surprise even his biggest haters. In 2019, he received two Emmy nominations for his comedy special and SNL hosting gig, but also earned critics awards for the first time in his career for a movie performance. He’s worked with some auteurs and even came close to working with Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”), Michael Mann (“Collateral”) and Scorsese (“Dino”). Here are some of his most surprising performances of his very strange career.
10. Men, Women & Children (2014)
Sandler has collaborated with several acclaimed directors, but the result hasn’t always been good, filmwise. Even when he tried to make a commercial comedy film with more established names (Nora Ephron, Chris Columbus), things didn’t always work out. In 2014, he made “The Coddler” with Tom McCarthy, who directed films like “The Station Agent” and “Spotlight,” which was certainly a different kind of role for him; but with such undercooked material, he couldn’t manage to shine.
In the same year, in Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children” the script is hardly much better. Reitman handles most of the material surprisingly very heavy-handedly and it came a bit of a shock since his previous films were all good up to that point, and the movie just stops engaging you after a while. But if there’s one complicated and complex side of the film, it’s Sandler’s performance, which is absolutely perfect in the movie. He shines here, especially in his final scene, and it’s one of his best dramatic moments.
Reitman himself was impressed by his dedication to his craft, saying, “I can’t imagine two tougher scenes for an actor to do as an adult than in this movie but, as soon as he said yes, he was 100 percent in. He was so committed, never scared and was lovely about everything.” So hopefully if they’re going to collaborate again, Reitman will have another great role for Sandler, but this time in a better movie.
9. Airheads (1994)
A trio of rockers sneak into a radio station brandishing plastic Uzis and force the DJ to play their single, but the situation grows out of control. “Airheads” is not some comedy masterpiece but it’s still an underrated feature of the ‘90s and probably one of the most watchable comedies of Sandler’s career. First of all, it’s not an “Adam Sandler comedy” but rather just a comedy that he ended up having a role in. There had to be at least one of his mainstream comedies on the list, but instead of something popular, it’s better to go with “Airheads,” since it’s more underrated and different.
It’s not like Sandler was a total no-name; he was already enjoying success on SNL, but this was the first film that gave him a large role. This is an interesting part because he’s rarely in a supporting role and even though there are several elements here that will become part of his trademark comedy persona in the future, it’s interesting to watch his comedic abilities without him overplaying or turning them into some kind of a brand.
There’s some sense of innocence in his character that makes him likable and engaging; his chemistry with his co-stars is very good and the movie shows that he doesn’t always need to be the lead actor in comedies as he can also be a scene-stealer in a film. Maybe he doesn’t have to be the leading man all the time, and should try some supporting roles, too.
8. Click (2006)
One of his best comedies. Period. “Click” is, first of all, a decent movie. No, it’s not without its gross and stupid moments, but it’s also a fine escapist, high-concept entertainment, with a great cast (I mean, Christopher Walken? Henry Winkler?). No, it’s not overly original, but it has its funny sequences that allow Sandler to show his comic side; his character’s relationship with his wife manages to get his romantic actor side to shine and his chemistry with Kate Beckinsale works out fine here.
“Click” is also a risky project for a typical Adam Sandler movie, because at some point it starts to take a surprisingly dramatic and even depressive turn. Sure, the second half of “Big Daddy” had a lot of sentimentality going on as well, but not quite like this. Unfortunately, at some point, they stop sticking to it and the ending is a total cop-out, but when it was on, it really was on.
There’s one scene where Sandler’s character sees his father for the last time and it’s kind of… heartbreaking? Yes, manipulative, but still impressive. And that’s not the only scene – the third act is almost full of back-to-back dramatic moments and Sandler is perfectly committed to his role. Not to mention, there’s no other film where Sandler does his usual comedy thing and then suddenly goes this hard to sad places. Sandler’s fan base isn’t exactly full of people who might enjoy all of his dramatic/non-typical films, but this was a great opportunity to show his own audience that he’s capable of being a dramatic actor.
7. Spanglish (2004)
Sandler’s “Anger Management” co-star Jack Nicholson won two of his three Oscars for James L. Brooks films. Brooks made an interesting choice to cast Sandler in a film that one wouldn’t consider among his best, but still can be called as a moving portrayal of the difficulty of family problems and self-identity.
It was one of the benefits of “Punch-Drunk Love” as Brooks was so impressed by Sandler’s performance in that film that he decided it’d be a good decision to give him another dramatic role, and he’s really strong in this. He plays a loving father and husband, as well as a chef and owner of a restaurant, who finds himself in some unexpected events. His scenes with Sarah Steele in particular are very loving and touching.
Sandler had to turn down Michael Mann’s “Collateral” to make this film, which is a movie that earned Jamie Foxx an Oscar nomination. Well, this one didn’t do as good, obviously, but at least he didn’t turn “Collateral” down for doing “The Longest Yard” or whatever. Some humorous moments can be found here, but “Spanglish” is still mostly a dramatic movie and another great showcase for Sandler’s dramatic talent.
6. Funny People (2009)
We mentioned that he turned down “Collateral” for doing “Spanglish,” and he also turned down Eli Roth’s character in “Inglourious Basterds” to make this movie. Which one is a better character is, of course, up to the audience to judge; again, at least he didn’t turn down Tarantino for Frank Coraci but rather for Judd Apatow.
It is a flawed film because as usual with Apatow’s stuff, “Funny People” is way too long; but it was also Apatow’s most mature movie up until that time. Both Apatow and Sandler were roommates back in the day, so the script has a way of playing into Sandler’s strengths. Sandler plays a middle-aged comedian-turned-actor who made a fortune over the years but keep making poorly received movies (does it remind you of anyone?). But recently he’s been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Thinking he is going to die, he decides to go back to stand-up.
One of those rare character dramas that featured Sandler in the leading role, it’s another good case for him to show an unexplored side of his talent. It’s also a kind of character that Sandler rarely gets to play: a complex one! His chemistry is pretty good with his co-stars and the script lets him deliver some witty lines as well. The movie is way too long, so if you’re not too interested in the characters or the storyline or just don’t care for Apatow’s style, it may be hard to sit through. But if you go with the journey, you’ll witness some of Sandler’s finest moments.