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The following is a transcript from a series of conversations we’re calling “The Discourse.” An informal discussion between Frida Cinema volunteers on a film related topic, “The Discourse” is like a podcast for your eyes. Read on, reader, if you dare.
Love him or hate him, Adam Sandler is everywhere. He’s in the air, the water, and the laughter of children. For almost 35 years, Sandler’s presence in cinema has been celebrated and derided in equal measures, but the fact remains, he is undeniably here to stay.
On the occasion of the Frida’s SOLD-OUT “Sand-Man: Enter the Sandler-Verse” double feature, Blog writers Anthony McKelroy and Austin Jaye ponder just what it is that makes Adam Sandler’s work, well, work.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
Anthony: Austin, thank you for joining me on this free-range conversation all about Adam Sandler. I’m so grateful you could make time in your extraordinarily busy schedule as the Frida’s trailer editor, blog writer, and [a] filmmaker in your own right.
Austin: Thank you so much for having me, I’m really excited to be a part of it.
Anthony: So… Adam Sandler…
Anthony: A person whose films haven’t been played much here at the Frida because, for the last 10 years, he’s been producing movies exclusively for a streaming service — which is something we can dig deeper on later. But this month, we will be screening a secret double feature of his work. Can you tell me what “Enter the Sandlerverse” means?
Austin: Well, I gotta be upfront. This is more so the idea of our programming director, Trevor Dillon. I definitely had a hand in picking the films and helping curate the selection we will choose from, but the name, “Sandman: Enter the Sandlerverse,” is exclusively Trevor’s. And I think what was enticing about that was just, finding a way of collecting the most essential of his films and distilling it.
How we’re going to operate the event is we’re gonna basically take 10 films and put them all on the wheel and spin it. And so, apart from it being a free event, I think it’ll be fun because there’s an element of participation as well.
Anthony: Sandler has been in over 50 movies since his debut in Going Overboard (1989). What are some titles that we might see on the wheel?
Austin: Well, you don’t want to necessarily play Frida mainstays like Uncut Gems or Punch-Drunk Love—his more serious work. It was more so the notion that we want to celebrate what Adam Sandler brought into the mainstream. Regardless of how he might stand with critics, how he might stand with people who identify with a “highbrow” sensibility, his work still resonates with all kinds of audiences. There’s a lot in his work that I think has sustained a lot of rewatchability.
The films Trevor and I selected were really based on the purest distillation of his comedy. So: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, Anger Management, Little Nicky, and Hubie Halloween.
Anthony: So, Hubie is the only Netflix film out of this bunch. I happen to know you love this movie, what makes this one a standout among his Netflix “red period”?
Austin: You can’t go wrong with Hubie Halloween. It’s centered on a man named Hubie Dubie Dubois – he’s played by Sandler. He lives with his mother, played by June Squibb, who owns the world’s greatest t-shirt collection, which includes [slogans like] “I fart on command” and many others. He’s the laughingstock of his hometown, Salem, and he ends up saving the town from an escaped serial killer.
Anthony: So, when is the screening again?
Austin: December 23rd, 8pm.
Anthony: And so, this is interesting timing to me, because Sandler’s in an interesting period of his career at this exact moment that we are talking about him. His 2020 deal with Netflix has just expired after releasing the last of the agreed-upon four films. To recap, these were: Hustle (2022), Murder Mystery 2 (2023), You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah (2023), and finally, Leo (2023). In sports terms, Sandler is sort of a free agent now. So, this seemed like an interesting moment to discuss what Sandler’s work has meant, not just to you and I personally, but also to cinema in general, right? Perhaps we can just go back and move chronologically.
Do you remember your first exposure to Sandler’s work?
Austin: I was eight years old when I watched Happy Gilmore for the first time. And, for better or worse, that was a very formative experience, watching it. It is to this day my favorite of his just because there is a bittersweet quality to it. And I think for what it’s worth, there’s still a lot in that movie that I think can be enjoyed by basically every audience. Even if you’re a kid as young as I was, you can still get a lot from watching Happy Gilmore punch Bob Barker in the face, without knowing who Bob Barker is.
And my dad would take me to get Billy Madison from Blockbuster at this same time. There’s a very “comfort food” quality to [his films]. And I think it transcends something like guilty pleasure, because there was absolutely no guilt to be had watching Happy Gilmore. I am so in my comfort zone watching this. It’s no different from any comedy that you wanna put on just to forget about the world, like Airplane!, Wet Hot American Summer, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Those kinds of comedies where you don’t have to justify its stupidity [because] the stupidity is part of what makes it so enjoyable. You don’t need to dig deeper for any kinds of deeper meaning, or like, intellect in that quality. The fact that it knows what it is makes it beneficial.
Anthony: How do you distinguish between each movie? What do you think links each of these works together?
Austin: As much as [Sandler] exhibits similar characteristics in each film, it really boils down to performance.
Anthony: He does come from a classically-trained Strasberg tradition.
Austin: I didn’t know that.
Anthony: Oh yeah! He got a degree in acting from the Lee Strasberg school and the New York Tisch. He’s a trained technician, not a schlub.
Austin: It’s very easy to believe. You can really see variety in even those early works. He’s a very confident performer. Even in his early movies, you look at those characters on their surface and it shouldn’t work. Look at Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore in particular. You have to take on something more, because those characters can easily come across as off-putting.
Anthony: Right. We don’t want to like those guys.
Austin: It’s almost anti-humor. Because he’s reducing comedy to just hitting people or yelling and these punchlines that should be mean spirited, but they’re still structured so classically. All the jokes in his films have this very distinctly surreal and yet traditional narrative. Like, “root for the middle class, schlubby guy.” And it’s a pretty familiar formula, but you just believe it because there’s already a heightened reality. The music, the mid-’90s aesthetic, it’s just so its own thing and incomparable. And in spite of all his temperamental quirks and tics, you are still rooting for Happy Gilmore to win his grandma’s house. Or you are rooting for Bobby Boucher to lead the Mud Dogs to the Water Bowl. There’s so many generally bizarre choices that somehow work in the fabric of each of those films, and I just find it so appealing. At the end of the day, I’m still laughing just as hard at them as I did when I was eight.
Anthony: So as a performer, what words would you use to describe Sandler’s performance style?
Austin: Loud. Juvenile. Raunchy. Profane. Sincere. Strangely, “heartfelt.”
Anthony: He often writes the films he appears in. How would you describe Sandler the screenwriter?
Austin: I think his persona can translate well into his screenwriting and I think mostly to the detriment of the film. Because whoever they have as the leading screen presence, most of the time I don’t think the actors can sustain and carry the weight in the way that Sandler does. He calls upon such a distinct way of performing that even his closest collaborators would be hard pressed to see them amount to the same kind of work ethic.
Anthony: I think what you’re getting at is why he works with the same collaborators so often. He finds his people and keeps putting them in movies. Which is another criticism that gets levied at him: that these films are just paid vacations with his best friends and their families. But I would agree that he has a strong work ethic with a high standard. Most actors wouldn’t work with him without feeling respected onset, otherwise they wouldn’t do some of the more extreme things his movies call for.
Austin: I do feel… that contrast of heartfelt sincerity with crass juvenile humor, oftentimes inexplicably surreal humor, it creates a comedic immersion that you really can’t compare anything else to. There’s real personality in the Happy Madison [Productions] brand. I feel that people get so caught up in wanting to tear that down because they only really see it as, “Oh they’re just working to collect a paycheck to vacation with their family.” But his audience does skew [toward] young, kids, teenagers.
Anthony: Well, some might say it’s easy to appeal to kids, to entertain kids. But I think what gets lost is how incremental innovation looks to an artist. It’s so gradual and minute that audiences sometimes can’t register it. So it looks like you’re doing the same thing over and over again.
Austin: Exactly. I was just talking to Jessi about this –
Anthony: Friend of the Frida, Jessi Heffington.
Austin: Jessi Heffington, my love. And we were talking about the discrepancy between a style and schtick. I think if it was just schtick, which could be more prevalent in the later part of his career, it doesn’t necessarily abstain from his style. It’s still under the banner of Happy Madison, there’s still this deeply American ethos where Sandler plays a family man. Even if the approach is different, the style is very much intact – to me, at least.
Anthony: Let’s transition into something more structured and talk about specific eras. I’m going to read you a decade of movie titles, you tell me what you think about this group, okay?
From his first appearance in 1989’s Going Overboard to 1999 he appears in 13 movies: Going Overboard, Shakes the Clown, Coneheads, Airheads, Mixed Nuts, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Bulletproof, The Wedding Singer, Dirty Work, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. How do you characterize this period of Sandler’s work?
Austin: It’s really just an artist coming into his own. Because around the point that Airheads came out, it became more apparent, with the help of two other leads, the type of conduct that Sandler has as a performer.
Anthony: Which is?
Austin: It’s relatable, yet very pronounced. It’s very loud, as we talked about. At the end of the day there’s this likability in spite of the more obnoxious traits. You’re still finding a way to connect with the character.
Anthony: Yeah, there’s an interesting demarcation point there where, he gets on SNL in 1990, and by the time he gets fired in 1995, he’s so famous without being the lead of anything. And then as soon as he gets fired, he starts only being the lead of movies. Going Overboard is its own anomaly – it kind of fits with what we are talking about, but it’s also such a unique object. He didn’t generate it, it had basically no release in theaters. And then Billy Madison starts it all in 1995.
You spoke about the surrealism of his films, and I think that’s evident the most in this period. Everything is rendered in a generic commercial style. Golden lighting, top lit, nothing too stylized or expressive. It’s not Uncut Gems, which is on the other extreme end of how the films he appears in can look.
Austin: He uses the same directors. That’s sorta why they’re probably a little more expendable than most directors who do work with that kind of actor.
Anthony: Right. As filmmakers, they can only bring so much of their vision into the film. Because too much experimentation, visually, would impede or distract from the performance.
Austin: Yeah. And I think if there were more of a [director’s] stamp, there would be a cognitive dissonance.
Anthony: Right. Which is why we’re seeing a rejection of Sandler and Sandler only, not his directors. It’s not the movie that’s failing, it’s Sandler’s performance in it that’s not working for the audience.
Austin: I think what makes it extra appealing is that there’s clearly a trust that those directors have with the guest performers so that they know they don’t need to bring a certain style to it, they can just be. Like Bob Barker, or…
Anthony: Mariah Carey.
Austin: – Mariah Carey, or Colonel Sanders. And at that point, you don’t even register any authorial sensibility from the director.
Anthony: Let’s go into the 2000s now.
Anthony: Beginning in 2000, he appeared in Little Nicky, The Animal, Punch-Drunk Love, Mr. Deeds, Eight Crazy Nights, The Hot Chick, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, Spanglish, The Longest Yard, Click, Reign Over Me, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Bedtime Stories, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Funny People.
How do you compare this period of Sandler’s career to his ’90s work?
Austin: They’re extensions of one another. I think even if the decade became not as strong as his ’90s output, I do feel like Sandler’s age is approaching a point where he’s reckoning with it on screen. And I think that’s what makes it not just an extension but a clear evolution of him having more to say than just making a traditional comedy film.
Anthony: I agree. I think the criticism is that this is the period when he gets “lazy.” But I think innovation for Sandler looks very different than it may look for other performers. I associate this period with a maturity that’s not present in the earlier films. Now, what “mature” means for Sandler may not be what “mature” means to you or I, but, I think he’s clearly trying to tell stories about characters that are not your typical Sandler archetypes. Taking as his very subject what time and aging does to a person, while still honoring his comedic sensibility.
50 First Dates, for example, is so resonant and so tragic at the core of it, and yet it is also still a goofy, juvenile Adam Sandler movie. And that is the kind of innovation that one can expect from him.
Austin: Exactly. They’re all such familiar, universal notions. No matter how much Sandler wants to take his characters and put them in different avenues, it all boils down to the [familiar] gravitas of winning your grandma’s house back. And I think it’s a very traditional and universal way of looking at the world, and I think that’s what makes his films resonate so.
Anthony: So we’re moving on to the most recent period of Sandler’s career. This period saw the release of Grown Ups, Just Go with It, Zookeeper, Jack and Jill, That’s My Boy, Hotel Transylvania 1, 2, & 3, Grown Ups 2, Blended, Top Five, Men, Women & Children, The Cobbler, Pixels, The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), The Week Of, Murder Mystery, Uncut Gems, Hubie Halloween, Hustle, Murder Mystery 2, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, and finally, Leo.
How would you characterize this period of Sandler’s film work before he signs his first Netflix deal in 2014?
Austin: I just find it his most transformative period. He just fluctuates so aggressively and intensely. It’s both for better or worse. In spite of the movies that have been very exemplary of diminishing returns, you still have him giving some of the performances he’s going to be remembered for, for the rest of his life. I think more so than [in] the 2000s.
Anthony: You think so?
Austin: Yeah. I think in the 2000s, he’s kind of able to explore different avenues and begin that process. In the 2010s, he’s going into his 50s, he’s a lot more self-reflective. Even in something like Sandy Wexler, even if it’s not necessarily as dramatic as Funny People, I think there’s still enough there in the subtext where you can register it as him looking at this industry he’s been in for this amount of time and [wondering] whether he has anything left to say.
Anthony: Let’s go back to 2014. Did you have a Netflix account?
Austin: No, but did watch Men, Women & Children that year on iTunes.
Anthony: Sidebar: How do you feel that film fits into the Sandler pantheon?
Austin: It’s ultimately too marginal to fit into the canon, but I do think his decision to take the role speaks to a certain volume of his desire to continue to establish himself as something beyond what his audiences know him for, even if the film doesn’t quite work.
Anthony: Right. Especially looking at the rest of the year. Grown Ups 2 had just come out. He had Blended, which feels like a classical Sandler rom-com. Men, Women & Children is unlike both of these but is not remembered as fondly as, say, Uncut Gems.
Austin: Yeah, I think ending the decade with Uncut Gems, it kind of completes the period where Sandler most presented himself. You really had him oscillating between so many different magnitudes of success. I think it’s the fact that he has so many opportunities to try and change up the factor no matter how successful or how much the film fell flat on its face. At the end of the day, it really boils down to maintaining a pretty drastic sense of ambition as a performer; in spite of how celebrated or derided the film may end up being, he’s still very much taking risks.
Anthony: One of those risks being going into business with Netflix, which Sandler had not heard of before this time. Ted Sarandos, the founder, reached out personally to Sandler to offer him a deal with the platform – they weren’t going to just anyone. I find it interesting they started with Sandler, probably not because they wanted films like Punch-Drunk Love or Reign Over Me, but because they wanted the broad comedies of [the] ’90s that he’s known for. And that’s what they got – for better or worse.
Austin: I would agree. I wouldn’t put it in the same magnitude as Disney buying Marvel, but it has a similar influence. Because people kind of recognize how easy it is for corporations to identify someone’s sensibility, a brand, and say, “We want in on this, we’re gonna treat it as a business.”
Anthony: And I think Sandler is a great case study of that because we already associate these disparate performances in different movies as part of the same cumulative Sandler project. Insomuch as he is not in many other movies [the] he doesn’t originate, we still can’t help but associate those performances with the films that he does produce.
Austin: The same actor who fights Bob Barker is gonna be the same actor who fights the Weeknd. It’s part of the brand.
Anthony: So in 2020, Sandler announced he was renewing his contract to do another four films with Netflix. And as we’re talking, the last of those four films are available to watch on the platform right now: Hustle, Bat Mitzvah, Murder Mystery 2, and Leo. How do you feel about this most recent crop of films? What do they indicate about where Sandler is headed?
Austin: I think this is probably the most comfortable he’s been.
Anthony: Do you mean he’s coasting?
Austin: Not necessarily. He’s found a niche and a means of expressing that – I think he’s aware that he doesn’t need to challenge himself as prominently as he did in Punch-Drunk Love or Gems, but he knows that if there’s a script that’s formidable enough, then he can provide himself in a way that’s as intense as those performances.
I think what I liked about Hustle is that it’s a deeply contemporary view of the kind of person Sandler is now. He’s mid-50s, he has kids, and you can tell from that performance alone that he has a lot of insight that, at least to him, he believes he can pass down to those who are younger. Perhaps it’s the work of someone who doesn’t really have anything left to lose with what they artistically express, but I don’t think it’s coasting. I think he’s just maintaining a flow of consistent projects that, if anything, offer a variety – but you’re still getting the familiar style that he’s been cementing from the very start.
Anthony: Yeah, and [he’s] iterating on those things too. He’s got a few franchises now in the last 10 years: Grown Ups, Hotel Transylvania, and now Murder Mystery. So now there’s this literal continuity developing in his work due to playing the same character across multiple films, like a Linklater project or something. He’s done the genuine performance, and he’s done the parody of the performance.
Now, are these movies getting sequels because they have the most narrative justification for [a sequel]? I don’t think so. I think clearly Sandler is expanding on these projects because they hold a deeper creative meaning to him as an artist, whatever that looks like for him. Because, as you say, who does he have to prove himself to, now? At this point? The roles are often tailored to him, not the other way around.
Austin: I feel like there’s less structure in his decisions, in the sense that I think he’s just trying to find what is an attractive script, what is an attractive director. I think he’s probably a lot more lenient on finding someone with a more directorial voice than he has been in the last 20 years; I think he scouted the director for We the Animals to direct Hustle. Because you don’t come out of a film with the acclaim that Uncut Gems had and just go about as if nothing happened.
Anthony: He’s moving into franchise territory. Do we think he’ll do a Hustle 2? A Hubie Halloween animated series? What do we think Sandler will do next?
Austin: I would like to see him expand more on the variety he showed in the previous decade. I think the timing of Uncut Gems was miraculous in that sense, because you see that film and it allows an even deeper recontextualization of what that guy can provide performance-wise. I would love to see him do whatever he’s been doing since Meyerowitz, which is, provide himself in different avenues.
Anthony: Like, be a character actor?
Austin: Yeah, maybe. Or recognizing certain directorial talents and boosting them – even if [he’s] not concretely producing their works but making his support known. I feel like at some point he’ll have a realization that there’s only so many more performances he can provide, which is true for all actors. I am very interested to see where he goes.
Anthony: Well, anything else you’d like to say to the readers before we sign off?
Austin: [Just that we’re] super appreciative of all the support from our audiences. Thank you.
Anthony: Thank you for chatting with me, Austin. I’ll see you at the screening.
Sand-Man: Enter the Sandler-Verse screens Saturday, December 23rd. Tickets are sold-out but there will be a stand-by line the day of in case of any no-shows!
Saturday, Dec 23 – 8pm