The Best Adam Sandler Performance Nobody Talks About
As you may have heard, The Safdie Brothers' new anxiety-inducing drama Uncut Gems is the latest addition to the list of films where Adam Sandler actually proves himself to have tremendous acting talent. He effortlessly disappears into the role of Howard Ratner, the gambling addict jeweler who can't help getting himself into more financial trouble...
Depending on who you ask, the Sandman has had a handful of roles like this. Nearly everyone calls back to Punch Drunk Love in which he plays Barry Egan, a desperately lonely and emotional stunted gentleman who finally stands up for himself in the world. Reign Over Me also acts as a standout in his career, as a man struggling with incomparable loss it's rare that any actor can deliver such moments of grace and pathos. Other additions like The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Spanglish ensure us that whenever Sandler dips his toes into a dramatic piece we're in for a treat. Hell depending on who you ask, some of the emotional moments from Click might even get a shout out...
But there's one film that isn't usually listed among those. One that, despite its importance and willingness to try something different, is often forgotten as an oddball in between between his serious work and his waning commercial comedies - Judd Apatow's 2009 comedy drama Funny People. This isn't to discredit the man's comedic work of course. Films where he actually seems to care (Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer) still hold up rather well, it's just that his output over the past decade and a half has seen a decline not so much because of his talent but because of his lack of enthusiasm. Funny People is odd because it represents this change whilst also proving to be the exception of the rule. Don't know what I mean? Let's find out...
Funny People stars Sandler as George Simmons, a famous comedian/actor with a huge mansion and lavish lifestyle who's happy to waste away doing films he doesn't believe in (sound familiar?). After finding out he has a rare form of leukemia and is given a short time to live, he begins to reflect on his isolated existence and questions his happiness whilst pining over a lost love in Laura (Leslie Mann). Hot off of the success of Knocked Up, Apatow's film received mixed reviews and failed to make an impact at the box office (which is rare for Sandler). However, it was praised for its performances, and it's here where the film becomes interesting.
Adam Sandler plays himself like...himself. He's ineffable and short with people to avoid unnecessary socialising and disappears into a quiet shell of a voice whenever conflict or contemplation arises. Simmons is a fully-fledged character by the time the opening credits roll thanks to a real-life home video of him, Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow and Janeane Garofalo making prank calls kicking off the film. It's a dangerous role to take for an actor, especially in a film that offers so much of yourself as part of its appeal. It makes it even sadder that George Simmons is incredibly unhappy. Alongside Seth Rogen's boy-scout Ira Wright he's the cynic burdened with fame who has to make peace with it. What could have very easily been self-parody comes across as genuine and heartfelt the majority of the time.
Of course it helps that the film was written for Sandler. Him and Apatow lived together at a young age and the audience is no stranger to that. As part of the production Sandler returned to stand-up for the first time in twelve years purely to get a feel for it in the modern landscape - and whilst some of the film's stand-up scene feel jilted and awkward they still feel realistic. Male comedians just really like talking about their dicks okay?
There's unrest between childish torment and forced adulthood on the brink of death that Sandler teeters between for the whole film. He's constantly distracting people with cock jokes yet his broken stares (like as he listens to Keep Me in Your Heart by Warren Zevon) are haunting. There's a disconnect to George's character that seems a lot more like the real-life Sandler now too, trapped in a career of his own making with only a handful of chances to escape.
By keeping his cancer diagnosis a secret his flippancy to tell audiences night after night 'George Simmons will soon be gone, and he will not miss you people at all' with a braggadocious creak highlights a desperate longing for someone to look between the lines. It's only when George tells those around him that he's awash with a newfound happiness and one that inspires the films The Great Gatsby-inspired second half. At a thanksgiving dinner with Ira and his friends, he embarks on the role as the patriarch and mature role model of the evening - a role he's never conceived himself as. But it's one that suits him. Cynical quips and world-weariness are always a good call at a family holiday.
It's easy to forget that Funny People, at the time, felt like a promise from Sandler to change. Up until then his brightest moments had been where he had allowed imaginative filmmakers to morph him into something else, but Apatow's two-and-a-half hour film was on his terms. It was an area he was comfortable in, only this time the performance was nuanced and layered. Even whilst trying to win Laura back from the clutches of her seemingly-perfect Australian husband (Eric Bana) in an ill-fitting extension of the narrative, it's played for real by Sandler. He doesn't half-ass any of it.
George doesn't change either by the end. Sure he's willing to let more people into his life and form relationships on the output side of things it's left unclear whether the man continues to go for commercial success over respect and performance. Adam Sandler wasn't actively trying to make a statement, and even distanced himself from George's character altogether, but over the past couple of years the symmetry between the two has been taking shape and films like Uncut Gems are the result of that.
Romcoms like Just Go With It and whatever the hell kind of film Pixels is have audiences arguing that Sandler just plays himself. But I'd argue that's not true. In those films it's more of a refusal to act, he instead goes through the motions rather than committing to a performance. Sandler allowed an old friend to cut him open to reveal George Simmons and it sometimes feels as if he wasn't comfortable with the results.
Funny People isn't the best film. It's overly long and in desperate need of a ruthless editor. It feels so badly like two separate films forced together at the waist. The dialogue flips back and forth between relentlessly realistic and stifled dick jokes. It's a mixed bag through and through, but Adam Sandler shines relentlessly by offering up a tortured character that continues to make you question his mindset through the runtime. Sandler may not have been allowed to transform into someone else from a visionary filmmaker, but he was nudged enough here to make a difference. And with the talent that the Sandman seems to be keeping locked away, that's more than enough.
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Funny People is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray.
Uncut Gems & The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) are available on Netflix in the UK.
Adam Sandler was snubbed for the Oscar nom. You better believe it.
EDIT: So in the weekend just gone by (I write these in advance, look how professional I am Ma!) Sandler won 'Best Actor' at the Independent Spirit Awards - a hugely deserved win. He also managed to grace the audience with one of the best acceptance speeches I've ever heard, and even mentioned his performance in Funny People which, I guess, means that people are talking about it and actually renders this whole piece pointless...
Check out the acceptance speech itself below though, it's a brilliant moment of warmth from the Sandman himself.
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