A new Adam Sandler movie arrives on Netflix this week. This is not a notable event; even the comedian’s aged base of die-hard fans may have grown accustomed to Sandler vehicles showing up in their living rooms with the same semi-clockwork regularity that they used to land in mall multiplexes—and leaning more heavily than ever on a Happy Madison Productions rolodex that must, by now, have at least three different entries for David Spade (presumably listed under “Spade,” “Davey,” and at least one uncreatively off-color nickname).
But the newest Sandler extravaganza features no David Spade at all, nor Kevin James, nor any of his less traditional hangers-on like Vanilla Ice or Dave Matthews. The other main players in The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) include Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson, and the writer/director is Noah Baumbach, who did not in fact ever attend NYU with Sandler, or write Saturday Night Live sketches with him. Sandler is front and center in the movie, playing Danny, the underachieving son of the not especially successful sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman). Danny affectionately parents his smart teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), struggles to connect with his ailing father, and airs grievances with his semi-estranged half-brother (Stiller). The movie is terrific, and Sandler is terrific in it.
Incredulous stories about how Adam Sandler can “actually act” celebrate their 15th anniversary this fall; that’s how long ago he made Punch-Drunk Love with Paul Thomas Anderson. For the rest of the ’00s, Sandler made periodic forays into acting outside of the Happy Madison realm in movies like Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Funny People. Since the box office failure of that Judd Apatow dramedy, the serious Sandler has appeared somewhat less frequently, and movies like Men, Women & Children haven’t done much to generate interest in this corner of his career. The combination of relatively scarce serious forays and the sheer volume of movies like Pixels and The Do-Over suggest that surprise at Sandler’s skill as a performer may last the rest of his life.
Yet the gap between Sandler’s late-period quasi-comedic performances and his occasional auteur-driven triumphs is not as vast as it sometimes seems. That’s not to say that Sandler is secretly shaded in movies like Blended or Grown Ups (and in fact he’s now made so many middling-to-poor comedies that this entire piece could be written without ever referring to the same bad movie twice). Closer to the opposite is true, in that his Danny Meyerowitz isn’t far removed from any number of other, less shaded Sandler characters. In fact, a lot of what he does in The Meyerowitz Stories could be classified as a greatest-hits of Sandler shtick: He loses his temper and screams; he sings goofy little songs; he venerates his father and tries to be a good parent; he even spends a lot of time lounging around in shorts.
In other words, Danny Meyerowitz is very much an Adam Sandler character, not a postmodern comment on the types of characters he plays. Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People are more explicit about their connection to Sandler’s comedic persona; Punch-Drunk is essentially P.T. Anderson’s nervy, high-wire version of a Happy Madison comedy, while Funny People supplies near-endless parallels between a fictional comedy star and Sandler himself from its opening moments. By contrast, Baumbach’s film doesn’t appear to have been written with Sandler in mind. Even if it was, Baumbach is far more interested in his pet themes and topics—fractured families; rueful, second-guessing nostalgia; the difficulties of a self-consciously artistic temperament—than he is in offering a metatextual riff on the Adam Sandler man-child.
Meyerowitz doesn’t play any of the usual Sandler games, then; it just plays to his strengths. And Baumbach’s way of doing this suggests that these Sandler touchstones really are strengths, not just elements of a persona that can be subverted in the right hands. Danny’s occasional outbursts of rage, like an opening scene focusing on the stress of finding a New York City parking spot, are cathartic and funny—in part because Baumbach often cuts them off mid-scream and in part because Sandler does have a funny screaming voice, at once furious and desperate.
Sandler’s late-career weakness for familial bonding comes into play here, too: His ease in the warm scenes between Danny and Eliza have the heartbreaking dimension of a guy whose real successes in life (primarily parenting) could resemble arrested development, his rapport with a teenager looking almost too easy. That mix of comfort and disappointment is reinforced by his shambling sense of style, and contrasted in a very funny scene where Hoffman’s Harold insists that a function they’re attending together is black-tie. In several other scenes, including a lovely duet with Van Patten, Sandler uses his singing, that old staple of his goofy comedy albums, to suggest both Danny’s playful creativity and a talent that has probably gone underdeveloped.
That same description will probably be applied, unkindly, to Sandler’s own talent: How can he go on making self-aggrandizing junk like Just Go With It when he could have been making movies like Meyerowitz all along? But it’s hard to say whether Sandler could have played Danny Meyerowitz—probably his most fully realized “serious” character—back when his comedies were more consistently tolerable, or even following Punch-Drunk Love. In Saturday Night Live sketches and early movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, Sandler certainly has something, but part of what’s compelling about him as a comic presence is a kind of goofy, vamping sheepishness about being the center of attention—coupled with a secret desire to hold that attention, hence the stammer-to-roar dynamic of the old “Denise Show” bit on SNL or the righteously ill temper of Happy Gilmore. The Adam Sandler of today is a more unambiguously confident performer. Even in his most aw-shucks or regressive moments, Danny Meyerowitz registers as an adult.
It’s counterintuitive to suggest that Sandler has only gotten better as an actor, and it’s downright undeniable that his increased comfort in front of the camera has resulted in some dull performances in some lousy movies. But an unflinching look at his filmography of the past 10 years or so—admittedly not for the faint of heart—reveals some risks taken amidst movies where he plays a smugly unfunny rich asshole. Sometimes the two types of performances exist side by side: It’s easy to sneer at Sandler getting in drag to play the braying, Bronx-born Jill in Jack And Jill, but there’s visible effort (and sometimes startling, sweaty detail) in that character, as opposed to the surly, condescending version of a straight man that the Jack character lazily embodies. Sandler also underplays wonderfully in You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, and does a kind of heartfelt caricature in the recent Netflix release Sandy Wexler.
Again, that’s not to say that Sandler’s career contains a hidden cache of gems, or that he has the ability to disappear inside a character. But he has given plenty of good performances, and his work, like a lot of film performing, runs contrary to the contemporary signifiers of “good” acting. These tend to be qualities like range, mimicry, broadly visible emoting—anything that comes close to turning a performance into something quantifiable. Those definitions tend to overlook how movie stars work, and while stardom is not always the same as acting, they are related. A lot of movie stars learn by doing, and improve with experience, gaining range with subtle variations, not chameleon-like transformation. Think of performers like Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock, who have done some of their best acting later in their careers without the benefit of total transformation—often because of great filmmakers working with them, not around them.
Sandler, as the architect of his own comedy career, may be in the unusual position of having to work around himself. It’s hard to imagine another actor getting as much praise for The Meyerowitz Stories, not because Sandler is doing something that other actors could easily replicate but because the way his work has accumulated over the years makes Danny especially touching in his hands. The performance feels like more of a departure than it really is because Sandler often positions himself as an outsider in his movies (especially the early ones)—and offscreen, too, when he avoids sit-down interviews, makes low-key jabs at mean critics, and surrounds himself with his ever-growing collection of backslapping buddies. The Netflix deal was another way of turning Happy Madison into its own gated playground—which also accounts for the sometimes bullying tone of Sandler’s worst movies.
So if there’s surprise about Sandler’s work in Meyerowitz, maybe it’s not how skillful it is, but rather how easily he re-engages with the world beyond those Happy Madison fences. By all accounts, this was not an engagement made reluctantly: Baumbach has said that he offered the role to Sandler in response to a call the actor made years ago, saying that if Baumbach ever had anything for him, he’d be game. (At a recent New York Film Festival press conference, Baumbach further noted that these calls from actors usually result in him sending them a script and then hearing back that the material “didn’t speak” to them.) Given Sandler’s productivity, this almost certainly would have happened either as Sandler was making one of his Happy Madison pictures, or prepping one of them. It’s hard to read this as any kind of pivot.
That’s the kind of hope Sandler’s serious turns inevitably engender, and it makes sense. I know that as a film-watcher, I want to see more movies like The Meyerowitz Stories, Punch-Drunk Love, and Funny People. But even with so many bad comedies, Sandler has built a halfway decent filmography. Compare him to other Saturday Night Live stars of his magnitude: Will Ferrell has made more great comedies (and it’s hard to imagine that balance shifting), but has never made a “serious” movie nearly as good as Sandler’s three best. Mike Myers created more indelible SNL characters, but his perfectionism has taken him out of the film comedy game for years (while still inexplicably allowing The Love Guru), and his non-broad turns have been even more rare than Sandler’s. It’s time to stop feigning surprise that Adam Sandler is a good actor or outrage that he could appear in lazy dreck. This is not the same as halting praise for the former or pans for the latter, or even the same as giving up hope that his future comedies (Netflix or not) will be funnier than his recent average. But his great work in The Meyerowitz Stories isn’t in anomalous opposition to his bad work elsewhere. Like so many movie stars, his best and his worst are coming from the same place.