Why Adam Sandler is the most underrated dramatic actor of his generation

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. He failed to get an Oscar nomination for best lead actor for his role in the film.
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. He failed to get an Oscar nomination for best lead actor for his role in the film. Credit: A24 /AP

Like many movie stars of his vintage and popularity, Adam Sandler has a separate Wikipedia page just to list his awards.

Unlike Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington, Sandler’s page is dominated by his 40 nominations and nine wins for the Golden Raspberry Awards, the dubious honour given out to the worst movies and performances, a ceremony traditionally held the night before the Oscars.

But among Sandler’s Razzie nods is the Razzie Redeemer Award, given to an artist who is seen to have since become a respected artist, for his performance in the 2019 tension-fuelled caper Uncut Gems.

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The sensational Uncut Gems was a career-best for Sandler, earning plaudits far and wide for his portrayal of a gem dealer under immense pressure to recover the 1000-carat black opal he needs to pay off his gambling debts to a fearsome loan shark.

On top of that, his wife is about to leave him and his relationship with his mistress isn’t exactly zen.

The film, made by the Safdie brothers, is propulsive and madcap. But Sandler is next level. His performance is so convincingly wound tight, you’re sure he’s going to literally pop a vein in his eye before the halfway mark.

All the characteristics you normally associate with a Sandler performance – over-the-top, brash and frenetic – is a perfect complement to Uncut Gems. Not surprisingly, he was touted for at least an Oscar nomination.

Was the man responsible for absolute stinkers including Blended, Grown Ups and Jack and Jill really about to be inducted into such an elite, venerated class?

Adam Sandler at the after party for Hustle. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Netflix)
Adam Sandler at the after party for Hustle. Credit: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Netflix

Spoiler alert, he was not. When the Oscar nominations were read out on January 13, 2020, Sandler was nowhere to be seen, overlooked for Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio Banderas, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce.

Sandler tweeted that day, “Bad news: Sandman gets no love from the Academy. Good news: Sandman can stop wearing suits”.

He might have been cheeky about it but Sandler hit on a salient point: Will the Academy never take him seriously?

Sure, he makes dumb movies. And he makes lots and lots of them. Sandler’s popular appeal means everyone wants to be in business with him, and the types of flicks he makes will never cost $US200 million, but they do get people watching.

Is Hubie Halloween a masterpiece? Absolutely not. It is forgettable at best. Is I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry offensive? Yes. As is every tie-up between Sandler and the supremely unfunny Kevin James. As an aside, can someone please explain Kevin James? Why is he a thing?

Little Nicky is idiotic, Just Go With It is asinine and Pixels is, well, Pixels. Sandler makes bad movies, and often.

Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love.
Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Credit: Supplied

But here’s the thing, when he moves away from the broad comedies he produces and stars in with his friends, he has a near-perfect strike rate.

He is one of the most underrated dramatic actors of his generation.

Think about it. Uncut Gems, obviously. Punch-Drunk Love? Unequivocally yes. The 2002 Paul T. Anderson starred Sandler as a downtrodden and lonely man trying to earn a million frequent flyer miles through a loophole in a grocery promotion.

It was a vulnerable and open performance that revealed an unseen dimension in Sandler’s talents. He was incredible at having audiences empathise with characters that were, for lack of a better word, kind of pathetic in a way. They’re not heroes, they’re not the big man and they’re often marginalised.

In Uncut Gems, his character may have been the victim of his own choices but there was something sad about him.

In The Meyerowitz Stories, Noah Baumbach’s 2017 family dramedy about an ageing artist (Dustin Hoffman) and his three adult children (Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel), Sandler plays the less successful brother, just separated from his wife and forever belittled by his dad.

TOD TV The Meyerowitz Stories. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories.
Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

In the 2022 sports drama Hustle, he portrays a basketball recruiter and aspiring coach who is sidelined by the obnoxious nepo baby owner of the team. And in the 2024 Spaceman, he’s a repressed astronaut who, after a strange encounter in space, starts to unravel his grief and trauma.

These characters are all emotionally exposed and accessible. Sandler’s performances tap into a deep well of compassion for these everymen (yes, even the astronaut).

It’s a truism that we are more attracted (and we don’t mean sexually) to people who bare themselves to us, as if we’re let in on a secret, allowed to share in their pain or their joy. It’s what bonds humans together.

Sandler’s work in these films leaves nothing on the table. He’s not withholding. His instincts and empathy are a marvel.

Even in his earlier comedies such as Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, there’s an innocence and tenderness to those characters that isn’t just naivete. Netflix last week confirmed the sequel to Happy Gilmore is happening, it will be interesting to see which side of Sandler he’ll bring to the grown-up version of that character.

A SCENE FROM THE MOVIE HAPPY GILMORE STARRING ADAM SANDLER.
A Happy Gilmore sequel was confirmed last week. Credit: Supplied

If serious cineastes decide to never recognise his prodigious talent in dramatic roles – no doubt, coaxed out by sensitive and smart directors – then it’s a shame they won’t allow themselves to look beyond the more dim-witted examples of his output.

Sandler may not have been nominated for an Oscar that year but he did win the Independent Spirit Award for Uncut Gems, which is like the cool kid of movies accolades.

He said in his acceptance speech, “You know, a few weeks back when I was, quote unquote, snubbed by the Academy, it reminded me of when I briefly attended high school and was overlooked for the coveted yearbook superlative category ‘best looking’.

“That accolade was given to a jean jacket-wearing, feather-haired douchebag by the name of Skipper Jenkins. But my classmates did honour me with the allegedly less prestigious designation of best personality.

“The Independent Spirit Awards are the ‘best personality’ awards of Hollywood. Let all those feather-haired mother**kers get their Oscars tomorrow night. Their handsome looks will fade in time. Our independent personalities will shine on forever!”

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