Adam Sandler is one of the biggest film stars of the past quarter of a century and no one knows why.
He’s starred in some truly great films – period rom-com The Wedding Singer, surrealist rom-com Punch-Drunk Love, showbiz dramedy Funny People – and several films considered among the worst ever made, such as That’s My Boy, a film whose main punchline is the sexual abuse of children, and Jack and Jill, a film whose main punchline is nothing, it’s just Adam Sandler in a dress. He’s starred in films that no one remembers (Bedtime Stories? What’s Bedtime Stories?) and films with small passionate cult fan bases who will assure you, whether you ask them or not, that you have to see this film, even though it’s an Adam Sandler film and it got bad reviews, like Little Nicky and Click. He’s starred in films that are grotesque and offensive (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and films mischaracterised as grotesque and offensive when they’re not (Reign Over Me). He also starred in The Cobbler, a film where Adam Sandler’s sympathetic protagonist tries to rape a woman and then takes his mother out for dinner while pretending to be his own father.
Sandler is also the founder and CEO of a production company, Happy Madison, that’s earned an average of more than double its money on every film it’s made for almost twenty years, so it’s no surprise that he’s one of the richest celebrities in the world.
But Adam Sandler is so much more than this, or perhaps so much less. Many have tried to grapple with the mystery of Adam Sandler but it seems that no one can get a firm hold of it. When a handful of entertainment journalists proclaimed his film Pixels a flop based on its opening weekend box office, dozens more used it as a springboard for clumsy autopsies of his career – autopsies that turned out to be vivisections when Pixels went on to gross almost $250 million.
No one else in the history of Hollywood has confounded its self-appointed sages more than Adam Sandler. No one else has more thoroughly exposed the shallowness of their expertise by defying their explanations and interpretations. No one else has done a better job of making entertainment journalists look dumb.
Adam Sandler defies explanation because he’s incoherent. I don’t mean that as an insult. Adam Sandler isn’t incoherent like a drunk person or someone having a seizure. He’s incoherent like a historical figure from a lost civilisation reflected fleetingly in second-hand copies of fragmented texts from its neighbours – every individual piece of information about his life seems reasonably credible but if you put it all together, it doesn’t make any sense. The simple act of describing Adam Sandler is a doomed one, because he’s full of contradictions that no one but Adam Sandler can untangle, and Adam Sandler doesn’t do interviews except to promote his movies.
Five years ago, Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman of RedLetterMedia proposed a theory about Adam Sandler in a two-part video review of Jack and Jill. I encourage you to watch the entire review, but the gist is that Adam Sandler inflates the budgets of his movies in order to give both himself and his friends huge salaries. Jack and Jill’s script, written by Sandler, avoids any scene that might require complex trick photography or choreography to pull off the doubling effect of Sandler playing twins – they rarely appear on camera together at all, and only ever sitting or standing next to or opposite each other in a perfectly still shot. Sandler doesn’t employ a fat suit or prosthetics to play Jill, who’s portrayed as obese within the film, in fact, he barely uses makeup. But the most blatant example is a scene set at an LA Lakers game where cheap studio sets and stock footage are used in lieu of renting out Staples Center as a filming location. Jack and Jill has a budget of around $80 million, much of it clearly raised from extensive product placement, yet there’s almost no evidence in the film that any of that money was spent on production design or costuming or anything but filling its actors’ pockets.
For comparison’s sake, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes has a budget of $90 million, even though the cast includes genuine stars like Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. Sherlock Holmes is a period film with complicated production design, lavish costuming, daring stunts, gorgeous visual effects and all the other things that warrant such expense, while Jack and Jill stars Adam Sandler in a t-shirt and jeans. Even knowing that Adam Sandler probably took around $20 million from the budget just for himself, and even with Katie Holmes and Al Pacino as alleged co-stars, there is no explanation for where the other $60 million went except, by and large, into the pockets of Sandler’s failed comedian friends, who appear in small parts in all his movies – Tim Meadows, Nick Swardson, and Allen Covert in Jack and Jill, or Kevin James, David Spade and Rob Schneider in many of his other films, not to mention his preferred stable of directors and, for some reason, acclaimed character actors John Turturro and Steve Buscemi. Sandler gets away with the grift because his films make so much money so consistently that no one at the studio asks any questions, even when a lot of the box office flows right back to Sandler.
I believe unconditionally in what Stoklasa and Bauman call the Great American Comedy Swindle, but it’s still not enough to explain Adam Sandler. In fact, it raises further questions, the first of which is why he’s spent so much of his life making money for a bunch of his friends. If this was the plot of a movie, I’d assume everyone involved witnessed Adam Sandler beat a man to death at a party in the late 90s and the whole sordid scheme was a way to generate hush money, but that answer is too neat and simple and satisfying to explain an impossible conundrum like Adam Sandler.
The biggest question left unanswered by the Great American Comedy Swindle is why someone as genuinely talented as Adam Sandler would just churn out crappy films year after year for money he doesn’t need and hasn’t needed for a long time. Lots of great actors make soulless films for money (Michael Caine: “Somebody said, ‘Have you ever seen Jaws 4?’ I said, ‘No. But I’ve seen the house it bought for my mum. It’s fantastic!’”) but most of them do it at least in part so they can afford to spend a year or two or three on passion projects that can’t afford their usual salary. Bill Murray’s pay for dross like Kingpin and The Man Who Knew Too Little let him take the lowest legal salary possible to appear in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. John Cusack does rubbish like 2012 and a truly sad number of direct-to-VOD thrillers so he can do weird risky indie films with first-time directors like Max and Love & Mercy. Kristen Stewart can do no-budget films like Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women for years to come thanks to the chunky paychecks she got from Twilight and its sequels.
Where are Adam Sandler’s passion projects? His last attempts were The Cobbler and Men, Women and Children in 2014, neither of which were well-received. Before that it was Reign Over Me in 2007, which got mixed reviews, then Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, which is a rightly beloved film. He’s made good films other than these – I’m a militant defender of Click – but they’re the four films whose budgets are definitely small enough that Sandler must have taken a huge pay cut to appear in them. His next film is The Meyerowitz Stories with indie director Noah Baumbach, but even if that constitutes a mild acceleration in the last few years, the question remains: where are Adam Sandler’s passion projects? He’s one of the richest celebrities in the world, so he should have more freedom than almost anyone to pursue weird risky indie films that can’t afford his usual salary of $20 million, but he doesn’t, and it can’t be that he has no interest in doing so at all, because he does, just very rarely.
The most obvious answer that comes to mind is that Adam Sandler enjoys making movies like That’s My Boy or Pixels or The Ridiculous Six. But when you watch those films, especially Pixels, he doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself. He looks bored. He looks tired. He looks like he’s just a moment away from slowly lowering himself onto the ground and entering a catatonic state for six months. He looks dead inside. He seems more at peace with himself in Reign Over Me, a film where he plays an unemployed man with PTSD, than he does as a fabulously successful plastic surgeon in Just Go With It. Adam Sandler doesn’t like making these movies, and he told us so explicitly when he starred in Funny People, a movie about a Sandler-type comedian who sold out and hates his life. But he just signed an extension of his movie deal with Netflix that means he’ll be making these movies for years to come. Why?
Here’s where I’m supposed to project my own biases and insecurities on Adam Sandler and call it analysis. Where I speculate on all the anxieties around money he might have inherited from his working-class parents, or insinuate without evidence that he carries a traumatic guilt for the death of Chris Farley that compels him to take care of his friends. Where I grandstand about capitalism or Hollywood or his ethnic background, or how the critics treated him. Here’s where I’m supposed to say Jim Carrey wouldn’t have made Mr. Popper’s Penguins if he’d been given an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so it’s all the fault of whatever nebulous group or force I’m aggrieved by today.
But I don’t know why Adam Sandler doesn’t do passion projects, and the more I’ve asked myself why, the most I’ve realised it doesn’t matter.
Morgan Freeman doesn’t do passion projects. He played Lucius Fox in the Dark Knight trilogy for the money, but he didn’t phone in his performance. He did the work. I don’t know why he bothered. If he phoned it in, he’d still get cast in other movies because he’s done enough work already and made enough of a name for himself in the industry that he could coast if he wanted. He doesn’t even coast in Now You See Me 2, a movie that deserves far less than he or anyone else in it gives.
Adam Sandler gets to make whatever movies he wants to make. He’s the CEO of his own production company, he writes almost all his own movies, he has pet directors who’ll do whatever he wants and who aren’t themselves untalented (at least Frank Coraci isn’t, as he proved on The Wedding Singer and Click). He’s phoned in almost every movie he’s made for about a decade, but he’s not just inherently lazy. He doesn’t phone it in every time. He gave terrific performances in Reign Over Me and Funny People. He learned how to cobble shoes for The Cobbler. He made The Cobbler and Men, Women and Children back to back, so his weird little passion projects aren’t spread out because they’re too exhausting.
I’ve read dozens of thinkpieces to see if anyone has figured this out yet. No one has, and maybe no one ever will. I’ve only learned that Jack and Jill was the last time anyone felt pity for Adam Sandler, and that’s only because they briefly thought it was a flop. Ever since it bounced back, it’s been nothing but scorn, but it’s the wrong kind of scorn – scorn for Sandler’s audience, as if they’re keeping him trapped in bad films with the irresistible power of their market demand.
The problem with Adam Sandler is not that he won’t make another Punch-Drunk Love, but that he won’t make another Anger Management or Happy Gilmore. The problem is all the people who get a little joy at the end of a hard day from the particular cinematic experience that Adam Sandler offers, however vulgar you may find it, that Adam Sandler bilks with the cheapest, easiest version of that experience he can scrounge together.
He earned his fan base with films where rich people are idiots (Billy Madison) who look down on the working class (Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer), and who bully (The Waterboy) and exploit them (Anger Management), films with a lowbrow sense of humour too reliant on slapstick violence and fart jokes for the critical commentariat (though to quote their favourite comedian, Louis CK: “Farts are the funniest thing in the world”) that nonetheless contain some genuinely inventive, interesting and even clever gags like Billy Madison’s old man who keeps stamping out burning bags of dog shit, even though they’re always full of dog shit, or Jon Lovitz’s cameo in The Wedding Singer as a rival wedding singer who thinks he’s the film’s main villain (“He’s losing his mind – and I’m reaping all the benefits!”) but disappears after one scene.
Nowadays, his films don’t even have crafted jokes, let alone great gags, and he’s somehow lost the ability to make films about working-class or even middle-class underdogs who show up the douchey rich villains. Adam Sandler might be the only comedian alive who thought the financial crisis was a good time to start playing rich assholes who get no comeuppance for being smug, condescending, evil pricks to everyone in their lives – after Funny People, he played a talent agent who lords his success over his less successful friends in Grown Ups, a plastic surgeon who manipulates women into having sex with him by faking an unhappy marriage in Just Go With It and an ad exec who mocks his sister for staying close to their working-class roots while he moved up in the world in Jack and Jill.
Even when some part of him realised he’d made a terrible mistake and went back to scrappy losers, something in Adam Sandler was broken. His protagonists were pathetic in a way they’d never been before, a home-theatre installer who stalled out because he lost a video game tournament while his best friend was elected President of the United States in Pixels and a coroner whose life is so dull and meaningless that he fakes his own death in The Do-Over. The heart of Sandler’s comedy, and it did once have a heart, disappeared just as his films shed their production values and their jokes. It’s little wonder his US domestic box office shrank while his international box office stayed strong – poop is universally funny, but a huge chunk of Sandler’s domestic fanbase loved him as a very specifically American blue-collar hero, the gutsy foul-mouthed underdog who humiliates the oily rich guy, and he’s been losing them piece by piece since he became the oily rich guy instead. His films still ape a shallow version of their past glory and lots of people still seek them out because there’s a kind of special experience you only get with the kind of films that Adam Sandler is supposed to make, but these new versions have been stripped clean of effort and value to fluff up Happy Madison’s bottom line.
Adam Sandler is a great actor wasting his talent on shit, but if that outrages us more than him throwing shit in the faces of his audiences when they’re paying to watch him throw it in the faces of his co-stars, then we need to sort out our priorities. Adam Sandler is a con man who profits by defrauding the people who pay to see his movies. He can hide the fraud more easily now that he’s making his terrible movies for Netflix and there’s no direct box office, but it’s still there, and it’s still wrong.
How do you solve a problem like Adam Sandler? You start by realising Adam Sandler isn’t a bad person because his films are tasteless, he’s a bad person because his films are theft. You start by realising Adam Sandler doesn’t just make entertainment journalists look dumb, he makes them look heartless.
Then, you take seriously the particular cinematic experience offered by Adam Sandler instead of dismissing it out of hand. You take seriously the specificity of individual tastes instead of decrying the unwashed masses as brainless drooling hordes who’ll happily swallow whatever slurry is put in front of them. You take seriously the material conditions of modern life that make so many people decide that what they really need right now, more than anything, is to watch an Adam Sandler movie.
You don’t tell people they’re bad for liking the kind of movie Adam Sandler makes. You tell them Adam Sandler is bad for making the kind of movie they like poorly. You give them something better. You watch Adam Sandler’s career wither and die. You wait for Rob Schneider to release the tape of Adam Sandler beating a man to death.
You know it’ll be Rob Schneider.
You just know.