The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

Sandler’s Humor, Depth Earned his Seat at Big Kid’s Table

AP Newsroom
Actor Adam Sandler poses at a photo-call for the movie “Spaceman” during a film festival in Berlin, Feb. 21, 2024.

Spoiler alert for: “Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Uncut Gems”

In the middle of the 2019 awards season and all the “for your consideration” campaigns that came with it, The Hollywood Reporter pulled some of the greatest American film actors for a joint interview: Tom Hanks, Adam Driver, Robert De Niro, Jamie Foxx and… Adam Sandler?

Adam Sandler, among this pantheon? I mean, sure, he was there to promote the fantastic “Uncut Gems,” but that’s the “Jack and Jill” guy, the “Grownups” guy, the “Click” guy, the “Pixels” guy.

Yet he didn’t seem out of place. He didn’t seem uncomfortable around actors whose Oscar gold is worth more than I could ever dream of making. In the ocean of talent at the table, Sandler stayed afloat.

Why was I surprised? I’ve seen him in fantastic performances. I’ve seen him work with great directors, directors who hand-picked him for a leading role. I’ve seen him act his heart out in movies that didn’t demand it.

Still, in the back of my mind, he’s the “Waterboy.” He’s “Billy Madison.” How can an actor be so great when he needs to or wants to be but also be able to phone in ten times as many shoddy performances?

There isn’t really an answer. Nick Cage did it. Bruce Willis did it. Now, Adam Sandler does it. He was at that table with Django, Forrest Gump and Vito Corleone. Sandler can produce Oscar-worthy performances when he wants to, but he’d rather film in exotic locations with his friends.

I haven’t seen every Adam Sandler movie. I’ve probably watched about 15 and scenes of a few others. Still, I feel that I’ve seen enough of his catalog, especially his dramatic roles, to properly judge him as an artist. In honor of his new release, Netflix’s “Spaceman,” here’s a look into Sandler’s greatest dramatic roles: “Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Uncut Gems.”

“Punch-Drunk Love”

“Punch-Drunk Love” shouldn’t work. We’ve seen Sandler act as immature men before–in fact, that seems to be his typecast. But Sandler’s Barry Egan isn’t in the cartoonish world of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. He’s a realistic person in real-life Los Angeles.

Barry isn’t comically dumb or childish, but he doesn’t process emotions or himself in a “normal” way. His sisters emasculate him, he gets scammed by a phone sex line and he buys hundreds of pudding cups for airline miles that he ultimately doesn’t use.

It should be depressing. Hopeless. Barry should come across as a dead-end screw-up. But Sandler allows the audience to empathize with Barry, and, aided with Paul Thomas Anderson’s astounding direction, viewers want him to fall in love with his love interest Lena and see his life blossom.

The stand-out scene in Sandler’s first stand-out performance takes place on Barry’s first date with Lena, where he is so unable to understand his own emotions that he destroys the restaurant’s bathroom. It’s pathetic, but not really in a way that makes Barry look bad. It’s pathetic in the sense that someone is so emotionally powerless that they can only express themselves through violence.

According to the Guardian, Anderson wanted to work with Sandler more than any other actor, and “Punch-Drunk Love” is the result of the beautiful refining of Sandler’s archetypal characters and of what should be tragic characters in a film that should not work.

But it does work. “Punch-Drunk Love” is fantastic, to put it in one word. To put in in 105: 

“Punch-Drunk Love” is one of the most heartbreakingly real movies I’ve ever seen. Sure, I cry at movies, but I’ve never cried so much at a first act. Barry feels so real, so achingly powerless over his own mundane life. His inability to properly express emotions is so frustratingly depressing in a way that I’ve never really experienced. 

It’s hopeless and hopeful all at once, as punctuated by the repurposing of Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” from “Popeye,” used in “Punch-Drunk Love” to sweeten the already near-saccharine Hawaiian reunion.

“Punch-Drunk Love” may not be the best movie I’ve ever seen. But it is the realest.

“The Meyerowitz Stories” 

Compared to the poetic heartbreak of “Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Meyerowitz Stories” feels painfully normal.

Maybe I just like to see Sandler in grounded roles where his character’s life seems to be trudging instead of flourishing, as that’s what’s happening to his Danny Meyerowitz, but there is something about seeing actors play regular people that aren’t cartoonish or all-that-odd, just regular.

Danny, a recently divorced dad who has to move back in with his own father, Harold, with whom he has always had a strained relationship, tries to gain traction and start again. Much of Danny’s scenes are spent acting across Dustin Hoffman who is operating at his expected high level, trying to rebuild their relationship from an already unstable foundation.

There are three scenes that really sell Danny as a convincing lead, and they all seem so refreshingly mundane given Sandler’s usual comedic flair. The first is when Danny is at his father’s house playing the piano, singing a song with his daughter about a man that his father constantly called the wrong name.

It should be meaningless and a throwaway, but Sandler and writer/director Noah Baumbauch give it importance, and the audience understands just how uniquely bonded this family of artists is from a joke song.

The second brilliant scene is when Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), tells him and their brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) that, when she was a girl, a family friend sexually harassed her. The brothers proceed to smash the man’s car. 

Does it solve the problem? No. Do they make Jean’s problem about themselves? Maybe. Does Sandler excel in a strong scene that brings the characters together? Yes.

The third scene is when Danny and Matthew fight outside Harold’s final art show. The scene could feel like typical Happy Madison fare, given Stiller and Sandler’s slapstick chops, but it doesn’t feel farcical, rather like an expression of pent-up frustration. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Sandler’s performance here may not be as widely-celebrated as his Barry Egan, but his role in “Meyerowitz” is nearly as strong, building the argument that Sandler belonged at that table.

“Uncut Gems”

“Uncut Gems” just keeps building, as Sandler’s Howard Ratner spirals deeper and deeper into debt in an attempt to string together one long parlay, seemingly 1,000 legs long, into enough money to take himself out of the $100,000 hole he’s in and fix his marriage, relationship with his kids, relationship with his mistress and business, all while being hunted down by the mob’s debt collectors and ultimately betting it all on Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics.

Catch. Your. Breath.

Sandler carries “Uncut Gems,” a movie that demands a 100% commitment from its star as the building tension never stops, culminating in an edge of the edge of the edge of your seat ending that leaves audiences reeling and Howard dead on the floor.

If “Punch-Drunk Love” introduced Sandler as a dramatic force, and “The Meyerowitz Stories” reinforced that idea, then “Uncut Gems” lifts Sandler to that pantheon. Him being seated with Travis Bickle and Capt. John Miller for the Hollywood Reporter makes sense given just how dominant Sandler is in “Uncut Gems.”

The audience shouldn’t agree with any decision Howard makes, from fighting The Weeknd to pawning Kevin Garnett’s championship ring to putting his life on the line for $1.2 million, but they should understand why Howard makes them. Thanks to Sandler’s fantastic performance, they can.

“This is how I win,” Howard tells KG. He does win, technically. The huge parlay pays off, making enough money for Howard’s debt to be erased, but he’s killed in the process. His death seems unavoidable throughout the film, but ironically it’s the one time that everything works out for Howard that it backfires.

It’s hard to watch “Uncut Gems” and see the guy who spent most of “Jack and Jill” in unconvincing drag or the guy who pelts kindergartners with dodgeballs in “Billy Madison.” Still, with “Uncut Gems,” Sandler has his greatest performance, which deserves to be lauded as the defining role of his career.