Gossip suggests that Adam Sandler fears that he’ll be found out any minute as a fake, or that people will stop wanting him around. On the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast, the late-night host and former SNL colleague once highlighted that Sandler is the type of guy who will confide in colleagues that “they’re on to him” after even the most successful of films and highest of praise. “They” being the public, fans, anyone that’s seen a Sandler project. They will just up and quit on the comic icon.
As a lifelong watcher of Sandler — from Opera Man to Uncut Gems — nothing could be further from the truth. We are on to him: He’s an outrageous talent. It’s without a shred of controversy that we can comfortably proclaim Sandler an all-star of unsung dexterity. On one hand, he’s a popular, modern comic, with a knack for absurdism. On the other, there’s an insecurity to Sandler that we often take for granted.
Yes, the screaming and product placement have defined a good 50% of Sandler’s films, but deep down, at his best, he is a performer of prodigious skill and amiable presence. He’s memorable, too: Robbie Hart, Howard Ratner, Billy Madison — there’s a reason we cling to these name. The blockbuster comedic actor brought them endearingly into our collective consciousness. Well, maybe not Ratner. Still!
So, in spite of Netflix’s latest Sandler joint, Hubie Halloween, Consequence of Sound felt today might be a good day to get Happy and look back at the films of Adam Sandler. So, grab some Subway, maybe some sunscreen, and enter the Sand Man.
10. Count “Drac” Dracula in Hotel Transylvania (2012)
When Sandler pulls speech impediments and wacky voices – see: Little Nicky, The Waterboy, Hubie Halloween – the affectation is often debatable if not downright grating. Yet, when Sandler employs a zany Lugosi in a cartoon setting? Suddenly, the whole idea becomes almost charming. The Hotel Transylvania movies are like latter-day Chuck Jones toons, and Sandler’s monster mash franchise offers Sandler’s buffoonery a safe haven in his wiry, freaky take on Dracula. Think Grand Hotel meets “Monster Mash” and Sandler’s the literally vampish hotelier trying to keep things spooky and well-rated on Yelp. He’s a doting dad, a blood-eyed monster, and a comic creation of frightful fancy that kids (and their parents … this parent) really love. –Blake Goble
Best Line: “BLAH-BLAH-BLAH!
09. John Clasky in Spanglish (2004)
Spanglish has a lot of issues as a film, but Sandler isn’t one of them. As father, husband, and A-list chef John Clasky, the Sandman tackles arguably one of his toughest roles up to that point with the utmost nuance. All throughout James L. Brooks’ mismanaged dramedy, you can see him work through every family catastrophe in his head. Whether he’s trying to connect with his wife, deal with a bunch of vitriolic kids, or find time for himself, it’s a fairly complex performance that captures a man in motion — someone who doesn’t have all the answers and, more importantly, might never find them. There’s a lot going on here, admittedly, but Sandler juggles the emotions with humanity and realism, flexing muscles that were still being toned. It’s worth revisiting. –Michael Roffman
Best Line: “Worrying about your kids is sanity, and being that sane … can drive you nuts.”
08. Zohan Dvir in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008)
In 1992, Tom Hanks hosted a sketch on Saturday Night Live called “Sabra Price Is Right”, channeling a pushy Israeli gameshow host that screams about products having “like Sony guts” and wanting to “Disco! Discos!” Sandler and Robert Smigel must have internalized and adored doing that bit because in 2008 they unleashed one of Sandler’s most fantastical characters, the Zohan, an Israeli super-soldier who dreams of giving up the fight and cutting hair. Sandler crafts arguably his most Peter Sellers-like creation in Zohan, a sexed-up, Tex Avery-style freedom fighter that can disco dance and cook fish shot straight out of his ass. Seriously. Well, maybe silly’s the word we’re looking for there. –Blake Goble
Best Line: A teary-eyed Zohan in bed lamenting, “I just want to make people silky-smooth!”
07. George Simmons in Funny People (2009)
So many of Sandler’s characters are assholes, but I’m not sure if he always knows that they’re assholes. Part of why films like Grown Ups 2, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and Blended all fail so colossally is because not a single character seems to recognize Sandman’s protagonists as the bullies they actually are. You’re essentially being asked to root for the bad guy. Judd Apatow’s Funny People inverses that formula by pointing out the toxicity of comedian George Simmons — more or less a darker, washed-up, and more depressed fictional counterpart to Sandler — early on. That self-awareness, combined with Sandman’s natural charisma, makes for a character that’s surprisingly complex. When he gets diagnosed with cancer, we actually feel bad for him. On the flip-side, when he continues to act horribly toward a protege (Seth Rogen) and an old flame (Leslie Mann) long after his initial diagnosis, we hate him for it. It’s as if Sandler’s performing a very meta psychiatric evaluation on every role he’s ever played — and will play in the future. By drawing from the dickishness and likable goofiness of all his characters, he creates someone we can both cheer for and boo at. –Dan Caffrey
Best Line: “Bad career choice. Comedy usually is for funny people.”
06. Happy Gilmore in Happy Gilmore (1996)
Maybe the best way to describe the character of Happy Gilmore is if Billy Madison were to graduate, grow up, and … try to stab a guy with a hockey skate. While it’s true that Happy is merely the hip-checking, Subway-loving, golf ball-whacker version of Billy, he also proved that Sandler’s good-natured playground humor could work beyond the cafeteria and recess blacktop. Yes, watching Happy turn the prim and proper world of professional golf on its head may be crude at times (and Lord knows we’ll never think of Bob “Now You’ve Had Enough, Bitch” Barker the same way again), but Sandler balances the act with his signature boyish sweetness and attempts to do the right thing — even if going about it like an utter moron. Happy Gilmore is the movie that gave us dozens of indelible quotes, inspired a million idiots to take a running start at the driving range, and mocked the stuffy snobbiness of the American golf course for giggles like nobody has since Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Murray 16 years earlier in Caddyshack. For that, we give a dignified golf clap and perhaps even ride a bull or two. –Matt Melis
Best Line: “The price is wrong, bitch.”
05. Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
By the turn of the century (that sounds a bit formal for this list), Sandler had proven that he could play sweet, silly characters with quick tempers to comedic effect and box-office riches from the playground to the gridiron. Those characters usually, through some elaborate challenge, best the opposition, win the girl, and save the day. However, it’s not quite that simple for the anxious, rage-suppressing Barry Egan in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. Though Barry might think a loophole in a pudding promotion will be his moment in the sun and reimbursement for a life lived alone, emotionally abused, and full of anger — really, no more far-fetched than winning a golf tournament to save a house or a academic decathlon to maintain control of a powerful hotel chain — no such shortcut, no matter how glorious, can cure Barry. What does begin helping him isn’t the pudding scheme, but actually coming out of his shell enough to begin living his life and letting himself be loved. It’s kinda like the abandoned harmonium Barry finds in the street. It would be nice if he were a prodigy who could just sit down at the instrument and make music, but, in reality, you have to learn how to play. Thomas puts Sandler through his awkward paces throughout Punch-Drunk Love, which makes it all the more rewarding, then, when we see Sandler transform from the cowering Egan to a man who will fly to Hawaii on a whim to meet a girl or dispatch four Utahn goons in seconds with a tire iron. It’s in the before and after, as well as those moments of metamorphosis, that Sandler shines and makes the film work. –Matt Melis
Best Line: “I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
04. Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer (1998)
There’s a scene in The Wedding Singer when Drew Barrymore is standing in front of her mirror. She’s wearing her wedding dress, crying over a future as Julia Gulia. But then, she pivots. She starts to imagine a life as Mrs. Robbie Hart, giving us that Barrymore blockbuster smile — and, you know what, we get it. Who wouldn’t want to marry Robbie Hart? He’s charming, he’s considerate, and he’s a damn great entertainer. He’s all the things we hope for in a young man, and they’re all qualities that Sandler brings to the reception table of this 1998 rom com gem. As Hart, Sandler hits just the right note between a goofball and a rebel heart, a rare blend he’s been chasing for over two decades (twice more with Barrymore, in fact). Not sure he’ll ever find it again. –Michael Roffman
Best Line: “Hey, psycho, we’re not gonna discuss this, okay? It’s over. Please get out of my Van Halen t-shirt before you jinx the band and they break up.”
03. Danny Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Sandman’s detractors tend to point to him always relying on the same tricks: the gibberish, the accents (so many of which are variations on his Canteen Boy character from SNL), and his outbursts. And while the cartoonery can — and does — get old in so many of his movies, it can be a superpower when countered by something more measured. Take Noah Bambauch’s uneasy family dramedy The Meyerowitz Stories, where Sandler’s Danny Meyerowitz has a slapstick fight scene with his brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) that wouldn’t be out of place in Grown Ups, The Do-Over, or any other maligned Happy Madison production. The difference here is that their brawl comes after over an hour’s worth of restraint from Danny, who has quietly allowed his complicated admiration of his and Matthew’s petty, failing-artist father (Dustin Hoffman) to boil over into resentment, then full-on rage. And in yet another atypical move for a Sandler film, Bambauch tames the monster once it’s out. Rather than become an unhinged maniac after the fight, Danny integrates his contrasting feelings of bitterness and love toward his father into something resembling emotional health by the end of the film. Sandler still has so much going on beneath the surface in The Meyerowitz Stories, even when all of his feelings are out in the open. –Dan Caffrey
Best Line: “It was like walking barefoot through broken glass to get a milkshake. I loved the milkshake, but, you know, my feet were bleeding.”
02. Billy Madison in Billy Madison (1995)
On paper, the gimmick — grown-ass man goes back to elementary, middle, and high school to win his father’s love and business dealings — reads like so many of Adam Sandler’s more forgettable films. But Billy Madison will always be an untouchable classic, full stop, thanks to its absurdism. Yes, there are moments in every Sandman movie (even the shitty ones) where you see his inner surrealist-pervert crack a smile for a moment of brilliance. But lately, those instances seem to be the exception rather than a rule. Here, however, he pushes the weirder side of his humor so far — both in writing and the wildness of his yo yo-ing performance — that it becomes not just a means of telling jokes, but building a world. Not once do you question Billy eating paste with first-graders or cackling with an ominous lunch lady or hallucinating a giant penguin that somehow has sex with a bus driver played by Chris Farley. Like a grosser version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Sandler’s humor gleefully touches every last particle of Billy Madison for a film that remains charismatic, endlessly quotable, and — most importantly — really fucking funny. –Dan Caffrey
Best Line: “He called the shit ‘poop!'”
01. Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems (2019)
An Aligherian feat of one man’s personal hell in a jewel-infested modern New York. A visible ulcer of a human being. A car-wreck performance we can’t turn away from. 2019’s Uncut Gems provided The Sandman his most dazzling (and sweatiest) performance to date, offering an authoritative summation of Adam Sandler’s best and most neurotic instincts. Howard Ratner is indeed a rat, burning through resources on dumb luck and bad business decisions, and Sandler helps cement the unique melodrama’s brazen, deft tone. Is Howard a bad guy? A victim of circumstance? A totem for narcissistic men and their pride coming before the inevitable fall? A resounding “yes” to all three, frankly. Sandler’s everything to everyone, and like his cap-toothed jewel dude, he hustles the fuck out of the movie. Say Uncut Gems is about addiction, fate, karma, whatever you want, but Sandler bets his life on a role that defines him as a man of deep bravado masking sickly fear. How apropos of the modern charlatan. How nauseatingly watchable. It’s brave and bare and easily the crown jewel – or Furby necklace – in a decades-long career. –Blake Goble
Best Line: “This is how I win” and “I disagree” have become memes, but let’s give it up for Sandler’s ace improvisation when selling the black opal to Kevin Garnett and purring, “The dinosaur, that’s right. The dinosaurs are fucking staring at this thing. It’s 110 million years old, at the least.” We don’t know where that came from; the Safdies have said they didn’t either. But we love that strange line in a brilliantly odd movie.