In Defense of the Real Adam Sandler

(Bob Barker and comedian Adam Sandler at the 5th Annual MTV Movie Awards. Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

On March 19, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present Adam Sandler with their twenty-fourth Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award celebrates individuals who have, in the mold of Twain, entertained and informed the country through their comedy. Previous recipients of the Mark Twain Prize include such great comedians as Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey, Carol Burnett, and Sandler’s idol, Eddie Murphy.

“Adam Sandler basks in the adulation that comes with doing some real acting for a change,” read a recent entertainment news headline. Underneath is a brief story about how Adam Sandler has supposedly moved away from his comic “man-child persona” of the past thirty years and “into a brave new era of the star and producer becoming an acclaimed character actor.” The article acknowledges Sandler’s occasional dramatic turns in films like Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories but points to his starring roles in Uncut Gems in 2019 and Hustle in 2022, along with his Screen Actors Guild nomination for the latter, as a sign of Sandler’s finally coming into his own as a “real” actor. The piece wraps up by saying the publication is glad to see Sandler “tackle meatier roles as his career moves forward into an exciting new chapter.”

Though most film critics might word their opinions differently, that little article agrees with the critical consensus on Adam Sandler: As a movie star and comedian, Sandler makes dumb comedies for popular audiences seeking mindless fun and cheap laughs. He can be a good, even great, actor when he wants to be, in other filmmakers’ movies, but when he is producing and starring with Happy Madison or similar companies—except for an initial short run from 1995 to 1999 of universally loved raunchy comedies and the recent well-received Hustle—Sandler’s films as a rule are lazy, consist of vacationing with his friends, and have nothing important to say. In short, they are fun trash. His stand-up comedy occasionally has something to offer, though mostly for nostalgic reasons. The critics and agreeing cinephiles on Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd, and IMDb constantly trash Sandler’s movies, and the film awards organizations rarely, if ever, see fit to recognize him.

Beyond the arena of critics and cineastes, however, are a number of less vocal people who feel Sandler’s body of work actually does offer something worthwhile. Many respected actors have regarded Sandler highly and enjoy working with him in his “dumb” comedies, including such impressive names as Kathy Bates, Steve Buscemi, James Caan, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino, and even the notoriously selective Jack Nicholson. A 2019 “Actors on Actors” with Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler even sees Pitt gushing about Sandler’s acting, not in his serious roles—like Uncut Gems, which they were there to discuss—but rather in his popular comedies. In that conversation, Pitt echoes the famous sentiment “dying is easy, but comedy is hard.” Many of America’s best comedians like Arsenio Hall, Norm Macdonald, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Damon Wayans have loved and supported “The Sandman” just as wholeheartedly, and more

Audiences appreciate Sandler too, and they have for an awe-inspiring thirty plus years, ever since his SNL days. Saturday Night Live has churned out many a comedy star, but only a handful of them have found anything approaching Sandler’s success. Even fewer have had his longevity and continued cultural relevance. Sandler’s adoring fans—across race, ethnicity, age, and class divides—have helped propel him to fantastic success, making Sandler one of Hollywood’s top ten richest, highest paid actors. The fame Sandler has achieved cannot be easily won.

Even though film critics and the majority of cinephiles may misunderstand and dismiss Sandler, the longstanding love actors, fellow comedians, and audiences from all walks of life hold for him ought to compel the critic class to reassess Sandler’s artistry. After all, film industry gatekeepers are often wrong about comedy on film. One need only consider how the great comic actor Cary Grant never received an Academy Award, and indeed was only nominated twice—for George Stevens’s Penny Serenade and Clifford Odets’s None but the Lonely Heart, both so-called serious roles in dramatic films, both forgotten. Indeed, literary critics disliked Mark Twain himself, who continues to inspire both popularity and academic indecision.

Sandler has made himself the comic poet of American democracy and the working classes. He is one of the few remaining popular artists insisting ordinary people have a chance at happiness in America. He is neither condescending nor contemptuous toward the working classes, nor the middle classes either. He feels no embarrassment in portraying embarrassing, ultimately truthful, characters. He does not look down on blue collar folks, and he does not set out to fix their supposed problems. Through his films, he simply attempts to empathetically live their experiences and to represent them exaggeratedly and lovingly. He is not sophisticated, and he eyes sophistication with suspicion. As Dana Carvey said, The Sandman loves “real people stuff.”

Sandler believes and presents traditional Jewish, Judeo-Christian, and American values in his movies, and he shows his audience that these values are strongest in the American low and middle classes, not in America’s ruling classes. His films display these values as worthwhile, but not in a naïve or rah-rah-America way. He acknowledges these values are incredibly difficult to maintain in a society that does not reward or promote them, and in order to hold these values, they must have their foundations in ethnic roots and religious spirituality.

Like the great John Ford refusing to expound on his films’ lofty ideas in the memorable Peter Bogdanovich interviews, Sandler knows the American people will tune him out immediately if he starts waxing poetic about his themes and his process. Sandler also knows, as Billy Wilder and other comedians were once fond of saying, that if you’re going to tell Americans the truth, you’d better be funny, else they’ll kill you! So Sandler tells the truth and communicates his worldview through humor, which bears out in his work.

Sandler’s early films, from 1994 to 2000—especially Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and Big Daddy—all involve immature men growing up. In them, Sandler took the ‘90s slacker archetype to an extreme and demanded his characters mature and find a way to contribute to family, community, and even institutions within society, instead of simply providing the slacker a way to live alongside society as often occurs in the ‘90s slacker comedies like The Big Lebowski or Dazed and Confused. And though Sandler’s early films owe a debt to the ‘80s comedies from comic directors like Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and John Hughes, in Sandler’s comedies, the institutions do not simply exist for the characters to trample.

These films were not yet particularly ethnic or religious, but they were cultural and hold certain traditional values dear. Billy Madison’s individualism and heart will have use in his community, but he must learn to replace his scorn for good manners, social graces, and the life of the mind with the intellectual education he has always disdained. Happy Gilmore must learn to channel his anger and desire not through the cathartic sport of hockey, which has destroyed his family, but rather through the more highly disciplined institution of golf in order to save the last remnant of his family from ruin. The wedding singer Robbie Hart must replace a life of cheap nostalgia, shallow sex, and immature rockstar ambitions with true romance and artistic expression. Big Daddy’s Sonny Koufax—a highly intelligent man with an Ivy League background who has made himself low class through slackerdom and an animal sense of survival, due to lacking a manly education—must grow up along with the child mistakenly thrust into his life by cycling through the maturing rituals of both childhood and traditional parenthood, invoking Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. In all four of these examples, Sandler and his filmmakers channel Shakespeare by teaching his audience that the taming of passions is best achieved through a monogamous, committed coupling of the sexes. The sexes become most empowered together.

Three years later in Mr. Deeds, Sandler further honed his artistry in a focused statement made with the help of great Golden Age director Frank Capra. Mr. Deeds is a vulgarized, contemporized remake of Capra’s wonderful comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In his Mr. Deeds, two of the movie’s quotes exemplify his worldview, as Sandler and company force viewers to reflect upon both the movie’s protagonist and Sandler himself.

The first quote comes almost directly from Capra’s film. Sandler’s Longfellow Deeds tells a group of mocking high society types:

“I see why you brought me here, to goof on me, huh? I may seem funny to you, but if you came to Mandrake Falls you might seem funny to us, only nobody would laugh at you and make you feel stupid. That wouldn’t be good manners. Maybe my poems aren’t that great, but I know some people who like them. Anyways, it’s the best I can do… If it wasn’t for Miss Dawson being here, I’d knock your heads in.”

When Deeds says “it’s the best I can do,” he acknowledges he does not, and maybe cannot, make high art, but when Sandler says it, he suggests this is his best way to communicate with the majority of people. It is his ars poetica.

The second quote is new to Sandler’s Mr. Deeds. In it, the deceptive Babe Bennet has a change of heart after undermining Mr. Deeds for the whole plot to this point, and when her exploitative newsman boss asks if she wants to throw away her life for Deeds, she defends him, saying: “He’s a goodhearted guy who we think is a weirdo because he doesn’t share our sense of ironic detachment. All ‘this’ hip, snide, smart-alecky… bulls***!”

These two quotes sum up Sandler’s mindset and credo throughout his filmography. The interpretation solidifies when considering the direction his career took after Mr. Deeds, from 2003 to the present. For example, Sandler explored the way strong cultural, ethnic, and religious roots can beneficially tie people to community and family in Spanglish and The Cobbler. In Spanglish, traditional, Hispanic Catholicism supports contentment and decadent secularism causes unhappiness. In The Cobbler, Jewish spirituality, responsibility, and optimism beats despair, apathy, and predatory criminality both low class and white-collar. Sandler also emphasized how much difficult work must go into maintaining these roots, yet all that work pays off.

Through their plots, Sandler’s movies implicitly define good society too—since American Gen Xers and beyond lost sight of such definitions in the wake of their parents’ countercultural revolutions—as human beings bound together, in relationships with each other, a collective in which adults have and take care of children and adult children care for their elderly parents. The adults protect the children and save them from savageness and barbarism, guiding them through the fluctuations of life and providing them with the means to flourish: to have spouses, love, procreation, friends, and meaningful work. Children, adults, and the elderly all have a chance at contentment, purpose, and dignity. The films likewise occasionally reveal that good government and law should share these concerns first and foremost, as seen in the courtroom and shareholders meeting scenes of Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.

Though Sandler’s films are of varying quality, an artist does not investigate themes like these without thought, especially not over and over again as Sandler has. The ideas and the kinds of characters Sandler finds interesting are not necessarily common in film either, especially not without condescension toward the characters. This thoughtfulness becomes evident when considering Sandler’s filmography as a whole, especially when looking beneath the surfaces of crazy characters and gags. As Eric McDonough pointed out, when Sandler wrote, produced, and starred in Big Daddy, he was neither a husband nor a father yet was reflecting seriously on what that should mean.

This is a comic artist taking his life seriously as an American, as a Jew of Russian-Jewish descent, as a man who had humble beginnings then grew up middle class in New York, and as a child with loving, supportive, disciplinary parents. Nationality, race, ethnicity, family, and class all play an integral role in Sandler’s artistry.

None of this is to claim Adam Sandler as an avowed conservative. In fact, he has gone to great lengths to prove himself non-political. Sandler is, however, undoubtedly proud of both his American citizenship and his Jewish heritage.

For these reasons and more, Adam Sandler deserves a critical re-evaluation as a great American artist working in the low- and middle-brow. In recent years, critics have begun to recognize Sandler, but only as a talented character actor, due to his work with directors like the Safdie brothers, Noah Baumbach, Jason Reitman, and Paul Thomas Anderson. However, it seems sure that in the future film critics and historians will reflect on Sandler’s filmography and see him for what he is as a star: a great comic artist, auteur, even a poet, for the working class and average American concerns, especially in the 1990s and 2000s but with continuing relevance into the 2010s and 2020s. When Adam Sandler accepts the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in March, he will take the award as a worthy popular star who has something to say and has been successfully saying it for over thirty years.

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