Sure, you could go and see Blended this weekend, and watch Adam Sandler and his non-traditional family be urinated on by all the animals of the African savannah (for the record, I have no idea if Blended contains any animal urine, but given Sandler’s body of work, he’s bound to startle something with hooves and a bladder).
But why would you want to see Adam Sandler play Adam Sandler, when you could see him play someone who only marginally resembles Adam Sandler? Enough of the oversized t-shirts, rampant product placement and supporting cast made up entirely of people Sandler hangs out with in real life. You’re a Sandler aficionado, with all the style and sophistication inherent in someone who uses the word “aficionado.”
So let’s take a look at the surprisingly numerous, yet still small number of films in which Adam Sandler reaches outside his comfort zone, and towards a little something called drama. More than the saddened turns in Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, there’s also the big surprise of what happens when you put Sandler into an buddy cop action movie.
Let’s begin, in order of most Sandlery to least Sandlery.
Sandler Rating: 8
Funny People is the story of an alternate-universe Adam Sandler named George Simmons, who’s diagnosed with leukemia and must take a new look at all that is old – friends, relationships, career. And it is dramatic, because it involves the word “leukemia,” but also because it’s got cheating spouses and broken friendships and a Sandler who is not afraid to submit himself to the ravages of age.
Look above to see how much he’s emoting. Those are real feelings pouring out of Sandler. But they’re also feelings Sandler has probably experienced in his own life, so it’s not so much an extraordinary feat of acting as it is a man talking about stuff he’s felt before. George Simmons is an angry stand-up comedian whose career has fallen on a long stretch of hard times. Sound like anyone we know?
And this is still a Judd Apatow movie, so even though it might jerk a few tears, it also relies heavily on humor of the fart and genital variety. Which is very much within Sandler’s wheelhouse.
Sandler Rating: 7
Sandler and Apatow go together like two little boys laughing at the word “dookie.” Sandler and James L. Brooks on the other hand aren’t quite as obvious a pair. Yet that didn’t stop Brooks from casting Sandler as the lead in his 2004 film Spanglish. And like Brooks’ other heroes (Melvin Udall, Emma Greenway, Homer Simpson), Sandler’s John Clasky lives a charmingly tortured existence. Over the course of Spanglish, he’ll deal with real, dramatic problems like:
- A cheating wife (Téa Leoni).
- A growing fondness for his housekeeper (Paz Vega)
- An awkward relationship with his housekeeper’s daughter (Shelbie Bruce)
- A tangled mini-fro that threatens to engulf his entire forehead.
But taking another step out of that comfort zone, from a guy who is Sandler to a guy who only greatly resembles Sandler, is a mighty task, and Sandler’s performance isn’t quite as authentic as it is in Funny People. Look above to see him emote, yet fall short of greatness and land somewhere around a Hispanic-tinted remake of The Wedding Singer.
Reign Over Me
Sandler Rating: 5
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Sandler’s flirted with mental illness before, but always for a punchline. Think The Waterboy. He’s disabled yes, but always with the intent of “Laugh at this man, and the fact that he is different. He sure talks funny, yeah?”
Reign Over Me is the same thing in a serious light. Sandler plays Dr. Charlie Fineman, a man who lost his family in the September 11 attacks, and has since suffered a complete meltdown. But with the help of his old college roommate (Don Cheadle), Charlie stares down his horrific traumas and maybe even comes out the other side a little bit more put-together.
Reign Over Me puts the Waterboy into a film that asks you to look upon his troubles with a straight face, and it almost works. Sandler’s been screaming things on film his whole life – it’s not a huge stretch that he would seem more authentic when he yells and flails than when he uses his inside voice. It can still be hard to take him seriously, but there’s never a sense that Sandler isn’t taking this seriously. It’s an A for effort, at least.
Sandler Rating: 3
Punch-Drunk Love is the gold standard of Sandler not being Sandler in a drama. It’s also something you’ve probably seen already, if only for the novelty of Sandler nailing a complex dramatic role. But in case you haven’t, he plays Barry Egan, a man who’s dangerously alone and overburdened with rage. But when he meets the girl of his dreams (or a girl that will at least spend time with him) can he win her over?
Even this role is still extremely Sandler-esque (we may never see Sandler disappear into a role the way, say, Gary Oldman can). Barry’s a screaming manchild with severe emotional issues, and he will punch so many things on the road to romance. But given the chance to work with a caliber of director like Paul Thomas Anderson and co-stars like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sandler does the unthinkable:
He’s a genuinely sympathetic leading man, whose violent outbursts are alternately hilarious, upsetting and intimately cathartic. He’s a sweet, naive, impossibly tortured soul. The clip above holds a Sandler capable of doing an I’m-gonna-smash-your-face-with-a-sledgehammer bit that’s subtle and charming. Don’t even ask how that’s possible.
Sandler Rating: 2
This is the one you really came here to see. Chances are that you’ve watched the previous films, but not this one. Bulletproof was swept under an industrial-sized rug eighteen years ago and has scarcely been mentioned since.
For good reason. It’s a terrible movie. But terrible movies can still be fascinating.
Bulletproof rode the biggest wave of success Sandler has ever had. It came out in 1996, a few short months after Happy Gilmore, which in turn came out a year after Billy Madison. Sandler was the reigning king of comedy. And some misguided soul thought that meant Sandler should star in his very own action movie. With guns and graphic violence and the guy who sang “The Chanukah Song.”
On those staggeringly rare occasions that someone mentions it, Bulletproof is often compared to Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon. One guy’s black, one guy’s white, but both skin colors are equally snarky when discharging a firearm into so much bad guy torso. A better comparison might be 48 Hours. Again, we’ve got a mixed racial dynamic, but Bulletproof (like 48 Hours, and unlike Lethal Weapon), is cop/crook, and not cop/cop. And in both cases, it’s the former Saturday Night Live star who errs on the wrong side of the law.
But Eddie Murphy (and Richard Pryor, another comedian who could wield a gun and not look like a complete fool) had very adult-oriented comedy. He joked about race and sex and society and yes, occasionally feces, but mostly the first three. You put that guy in an action movie, it comes out an action comedy with a dark and funny edge.
You put Sandler in an action comedy, you get a pistol inserted into Sandler’s soap-covered ass:
But can Sandler hash it in an action sequence? Kinda. His trademark move is to fall on his butt, shoot the bad guy in the head and then say something with swear words in it. Not particularly thrilling, but there’s something about juvenile comedy charisma that’s a little more endearing than Generic Action Hero non-charisma.
While Punch-Drunk Love is a stark departure on Jim Carrey levels, Bulletproof is a bizarre case where a role wasn’t obviously against type, but the actor attempted to play it against type.
But the problem is this: to make Bulletproof a better movie, you’ve got to remove the small touches that make it a Sandler movie. Like the nude shower butt pistol insertion. And if you do that, it ceases to become a Sandler movie, and tips fully into action-movie-that-happens-to-feature-a-comedian territory. Then, you lose your key demographic: Happy Madison devotees.
So even with his handful of charisma, it may not have ever been possible to see Sandler become a budding action star. And besides, if his career is any indication, Sandler has little interest in doing things that don’t involve hanging out with his friends and being pissed on by a CGI deer.
At least there’s still time for Sandler to join The Expendables 4.