No joke: Adam Sandler may be the greatest actor of his generation

Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer
Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I told Todd Field, the esteemed director of Tár, when interviewing him late last year. “But it sort of reminded me of an Adam Sandler film.”

In the week that Sandler’s less-than-wonderful Murder Mystery 2 lands on Netflix, it’s worth clarifying that this is a very good thing. Field’s eerie psychodrama about a great conductor going off the rails might be a multi-Oscar-nominated critical darling, but it also contains the following scenes: Blanchett verbally lambasting a terrified seven-year-old child in the playground; Blanchett and Mark Strong, both dressed in formal orchestral attire, having a punch-up on the stage of the Dresden Kulturpalast in front of a sellout crowd; Blanchett trying to thwart the sale of her neighbours’ flat by loudly singing out of tune while accompanying herself on the accordion.

Swap Sandler into any of these scenes – all of which fizz with manic, brink-of-breakdown comic energy – and he’d be right at home.

Anyway, the line was meant as a compliment, and Field took it as such. “It’s only film critics that have a problem with Sandler,” he said with a grin. “We filmmakers all recognise he’s the best there is.” He then went on to explain the pair had been friends for decades, and had in fact been recently batting around ideas for a feature on WhatsApp. If we needed one more reason to pray Field’s recent claim that Tár might be his last film turns out to be false – well, there it is.

On this subject, Field is by no means an outlier: actors and directors can’t seem to speak highly enough about the guy. When presenting Sandler with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour last weekend, Chris Rock described the Academy as “f___ing a__holes” for never having nominated his former Saturday Night Live co-star for an Oscar, adding: “If they don’t wanna give my man his props, we will tonight.”

And when I interviewed Noah Baumbach last year, he described Sandler as “a wonderful actor and a great collaborator” who’d been instrumental in kindling the spiky ensemble chemistry in his 2017 film The Meyerowitz Stories: “I’d love to have a part for him in every movie I make,” he added. Then there’s Salma Hayek, who rhapsodised to me in 2015 about the experience of making the Grown Ups films, in which she played Sandler’s wife. They might not have been great art, she conceded, but few professional engagements could beat the convivial atmosphere and family-friendly hours of a Sandler set.

Meanwhile, he’s also popular enough with audiences for him to have been one of the earliest lynchpins of Netflix’s entire filmmaking operation. After his relationship with Sony very publicly cooled in 2014 – much internal agonising over the low quality of his production company’s output came to light when the studio’s email system was hacked – he signed a $250 million contract to make four new comedies for the streaming service.

And while none of those comedies could be described as a critical darling – their Rotten Tomatoes scores range between 27 and zero percent – they evidently played well enough with subscribers for the deal to be extended by another four films in early 2020 (swelling his net worth to a reported $480 million). That same week, cinephiles were going wild for his extraordinary collaboration with Josh and Benny Safdie, the arrhythmia-inducing masterpiece Uncut Gems.

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems - AP
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems - AP

No moment in his 36-year career has better captured the Tao of Sandler. On his day, he is nothing less than the most throat-clutchingly compelling screen actor of his generation. Off his day, meanwhile, he’s one of the most easily watchable comedians around.

And happily for those of us who prefer him in the former mode, the frequency of those juicier roles has been on the increase. In addition to the still-theoretical Field project, both the Safdie brothers and Baumbach have been plotting reunion projects: the first set in the world of baseball card collectors, the second co-starring Brad Pitt. And his forthcoming science-fiction drama Spaceman, directed by Chernobyl’s Johan Renck and co-starring Paul Dano and Carey Mulligan, has been whisperingly touted for this year’s Venice Film Festival.

He was a surprisingly low-key delight in last year’s basketball-scout drama Hustle, and gave easily the best performance of the entire Judd Apatow-led noughties introspective comedy boom in 2009’s Funny People, which was partly inspired by his own experiences as a stand-up. And of course 2002 yielded the film which unlocked the Adam Sandler Is Good, Actually discourse in the first place: Paul Thomas Anderson’s sublime absurdist romance Punch-Drunk Love.

Adam Sandler with Juancho Hernangomez in Hustle - Netflix
Adam Sandler with Juancho Hernangomez in Hustle - Netflix

Woven through these coups, of course, were plenty of the formulaic comedies with which Brand Sandler has long been synonymous: some (alright, a handful) enjoyable, and others (alright, many) very much not. But the three 1990s comedies that codified his trademark man-child schtick – Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer – hold up very well. (PT Anderson has singled out Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy as his two favourite Sandler performances.) And his stand-up concert film for Netflix, 100 Percent Fresh, is howlingly funny as well as formally innovative, slingshotting between snug, brick-wall clubs and cavernous stadiums, and showing his material killing at every scale, and in every context.

As the title of that concert film suggests, Sandler openly acknowledges his wobbly critical standing. In fact, during the 2020 awards season, he jokingly threatened that unless the Academy nominated him for Uncut Gems, more terrible comedies would soon be forthcoming. But alas, they didn’t comply, and six months later along came the (actually not-too-bad-in-the-overall-scheme-of-things) Hubie Halloween.

It’s a pity we’ve been deprived a Sandler Oscar acceptance speech, and not merely because in at least the cases of Uncut Gems and Punch-Drunk Love, he deserved to be making one. His very obvious discomfort around praise has made for some sublime awards ceremony moments. At the 2022 Gotham Awards he gave a speech supposedly written by his teenage daughters, in which they noted one of the founding principles of their father’s career was “people in prison need movies too”.

And at the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards, which did recognise the brilliance of his Uncut Gems performance, he poured mock-scorn on the year’s Oscar nominees – “Their handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever” – before commiserating with his peers that evening for becoming “the guys who lost an Independent Spirit Award to f___ing Adam Sandler”.

A few weeks earlier at the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards, while presenting the Safdies with the group’s Best Director prize, he thanked the brothers “for getting critics to say something nice about me for the first time in 30 f___ing years”.

Well, Adam, there was a bit more. Just please, in return, I beg of you, keep texting Todd Field.