I’m starting to think we’ve done the Sandman wrong.
Adam Sandler is an interesting guy who’s had an interesting career. A genuinely gifted comic, he graduated from the skit comedy gladiator academy that is Saturday Night Live fairly quickly, and after a handful of movie appearances, really hit his stride with the one-two punch of Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996), amiably anarchic big screen comedies that cemented his “idiot manchild” onscreen persona and, while critically rather reviled, were popular with audiences and opened the way for bigger things.
“Bigger things” in this case meant making a successful play for romcom leading man status with the smash hit The Wedding Singer (1998), and taking a well-regarded dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk-Love (2002), a film that treated Sandler’s by-then established onscreen persona – amiable idiot with anger issues – seriously, and to excellent effect.
Weirdly, it was in between these two flicks that the general consensus around Sandler began to shift, even if the returns on his films were generally good. Between The Wedding Singer and Punch-Drunk-Love we got The Waterboy (1998), Big Daddy (1999), and Little Nicky (2000), all films that feel partly in line with the Madison/Gilmore loose duology, but also lesser than it. To be fair, time has been kind to The Waterboy, nobody seems to give half a fart about Big Daddy, and Little Nicky is, one near-perfect Ozzy Osborne cameo aside, an absolute train wreck of a film, and one that puts all of Sandler’s shortcomings as a performer, writer, and producer on display. It turns out that what Sandler does well is a fine balancing act, and even he can’t get a 100% hit rate. Little Nicky is lazy, obvious, grating, cheap, mean-spirited, and – damningly – about as funny as finding a lump in your testicle. And it’s not even his worst film – take a look at Jack and Jill (2011) and That’s My Boy (2012) for some real Sandman barrel-scraping.
But then also look at Uncut Gems (2019) and try and get your head around the fact that the same guy can be in that nerve-shredding indie drama and the low stakes laziness of Grown Ups (2010). It’s a mystery for the ages.