Oct 16, 2017

Ranking Adam Sandler's Serious Movies

Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories
While everyone was busy talking about Mindhunters this weekend, another great moment in Netflix releases happened the same day. Director Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories came out to critical acclaim and featured one big surprise: Adam Sandler. While he's known for silly comedies with diminishing returns, this film marked his latest chance at finding a dramatic core to his goofball persona. You can read my review over here. But this is far from the first time that he's attempted to find tragedy in comedy. The following is a ranking of those films where he attempted to stretch his acting muscles. From Punch Drunk Love to The Meyerowitz Stories, how has Sandler done at being more than a man with lowbrow tastes? Read on to find out.

1. Punch Drunk Love

It was the film that started it all. Could Adam Sandler be more than a goofball who made funny faces? Paul Thomas Anderson figured out the way to answer that with a firm "Yes," even amid absurd scenes involving 99 Cent Store pudding, a trip to Hawaii, and an unhinged Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. This is usually the film that people write down as being the exception to Sandler's maligned career. Here he manages to show pathos in his anger, creating one of his most wonderfully cryptic and interesting characters possibly ever. It's the bar that many have tried to achieve with him, but few have actually reached.

2. Funny People

The title is a bit misleading when looking at Sandler's dramatic work. It's got "Funny" in the title, and it's about stand-up comedians. Yet this Judd Apatow epic is so much more than James Taylor making phallic jokes. It's a modern interpretation of "The Great Gatsby" with Sandler suffering from an illness that could kill him. While the comedy comes strong, it's the drama that balances out the back half, making for his most grounded character that may also be a bit autobiographical. Many have criticized the character's antipathy towards his career as a commentary on Sandler's declining interest in doing lowbrow comedies. While this was largely seen as a coincidence in hindsight, The Meyerowitz Stories may prove that he's going to change his ways sooner than later.

3. The Meyerowitz Stories

Just when it seemed like Sandler was reduced to the digital version of bargain bins with Netflix movies, he turns in a performance that gets everyone talking. Sure, he sings funny songs. However he brings so much more to the role opposite Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, and the great Dustin Hoffman. It's a story of family dysfunction that captures the nuances of Jewish anxiety's impact over decades and generations. It features plenty of great character moments that turns a fairly simple film full of vignettes into a powerful exploration of family and how tough (and funny) it could be to forgive them sometimes. Sandler may not quite deserve the Oscar hype he's getting, but if it gets him to do more quality work like this, then that's fine as well.

4. Spanglish

With good will set high following Punch Drunk Love, Sandler decided to star in a romantic comedy that showed his gift for nuance and subtlety. Like all films from director James L. Brooks, there's a balance of humanity to his character that shines through as he gives another mature performance full of great character beats. With a heartwarming relationship towards his housekeeper, the story takes interesting twists and turns. While it may not be the most exciting performance of his career, it definitely showed that he could be a romantic lead without having to have a scene full of silly slapstick. 

5. Reign Over Me

In some ways, this is the closest that Sandler has come to an Oscar-bait movie. He plays a man recovering from grief following the death of his wife on 9/11. It's a solid performance in which he brings small tics to a restrained performance. There is a longing to every choice he makes, and his chemistry with Don Cheadle delivers more than enough memorable moments. It may be a bit saccharine as a drama, but it shows just how willing Sandler could be to bring a character to life. In the back half in particular, his mental anguish leads to some powerful moments that reflect the type of roles he could've been playing. It may be a bit conventional and forgettable, but Sandler owns the roles in ways that he probably should've owned more roles like.

6. Click

This may be a bit of a stretch to include in the "dramatic" section, seeing as it has multiple scenes of dogs humping things, and farting in David Hasselhoff's face. However, there is something about the conclusion that qualifies as dramatic. The story (and humor) may be a bit too conventional for a Sandler movie, but it's a story in which he realizes the value of life. It comes at the expense of a comical remote that lets him fast forward through time, missing key moments. Still, there are scenes scattered throughout where the power of this decision weigh heavily on him, creating drama that may have been undone by the humor but reflect his brief desire to tell stories with his home team that were far more complex. It may be remembered (if at all) for its comedy, but that ending does get pretty sad - and that counts for something.

7. The Cobbler

In 2014, director Tom McCarthy would win a Best Picture Oscar for Spotlight. That same year, he released the baffling film about a cobbler who discovers the power to walk in other people's shoes and turn into them. It's a simple enough premise, and one that could produce hearty laughs and insight from someone like Sandler. However, the plot is too complex in the wrong direction, choosing to become a serious of bizarre moments that don't all line up. Some of them are downright offensive while others fall short of any poignancy. With that said, the movie is saved by how incoherent its absurdity becomes, eventually having one of those amazing endings that is both inspired and terrible. It's a miracle that Sandler's partnership with Dustin Hoffman would produce something as delightful as The Meyerowitz Stories after a dud like this.

8. Men, Women & Children

The wasted potential of Sandler is just as sad as director Jason Reitman's post-Young Adult career. In this film, he tackles the fears of the internet with a drama that looks at how it tears apart one family. It's not a terrible concept, though it reaches Reefer Madness levels of misguided as the story falls apart into melodrama. The narration of Emma Thompson discussing Sandler's porn addiction doesn't help either. This is a film that is unfortunately disappointing for many reasons that go beyond Sandler, though remains indicative of why his serious movies should be approached with caution. He may do a good job, but who knows if the writers are willing to put that much effort into making a good movie in the first place. It's also awful because it has no personality and is boring. Unlike The Cobbler, there's not even a genuinely baffling twist to make this movie so bad it's good material

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