Adam Sandler, it is widely agreed, is a Bad Actor. Being a Bad Actor is different from having acted poorly in a given film or show. Natalie Portman, for example, was terrible in the Star Wars prequels, but (A) she was super-young, and (B) she was being directed by a guy (George Lucas), who didn’t show a lot of ability to coax strong performances out of anybody in those films. But Natalie Portman isn’t a Bad Actor. She’s fantastic in Black Swan and Closer, to name two, and garnered an Oscar nomination last year for her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.
Being a Bad Actor means that every project might potentially be poisoned by your presence. Commercial performance of a Bad Actor’s films may or may not be affected, but even people who pay to see their movies would likely admit that their abilities as a thespian don’t have much to do with why they bought the ticket.
Sandler’s Bad Actor-ism is by-and-large the product of his willingness to play similar versions of the same character for two-plus decades and cast his buddies in nearly every movie he makes. These habits have created the impression that what we’re watching isn’t so much a movie in its own right, but a cynical vanity project that doubles as something bordering on welfare for a collection of increasingly unfunny comedians. Sandler’s recent deal with Netflix has carried this perception to a new level. Without box office receipts to make clear whether or not people are willing to suffer through another comedy with Adam and the gang, it feels even more like he’s pulling the lever on a slot machine that only ever comes up triple-sevens.
Yes, Adam Sandler is a Bad Actor, and that’s not something a career can recover from. The end.
*Cue the sound of screeching tires, a record scratching, and a VHS tape rewinding at mach speed*
Adam Sandler’s latest movie, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) received a multiple-minute standing ovation at Cannes, the world’s snootiest film festival! It’s a serious movie. And he is apparently outstanding in it. What in the name of Billy Madison can account for such a puzzling turnaround?
Oh, right. This isn’t the first time Adam Sandler has garnered critical praise in a serious movie. His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Punch Drunk Love was incredible. So incredible, in fact, that I remember getting immediately angry at him for wasting his talent in Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds and 50 First Dates. But remember Spanglish? Reign Over Me? Funny People? Those movies weren’t great through and through, but all feature Sandler showing us a side of himself that he only rarely brings to the big screen. Maybe that whole Bad Actor thing isn’t set in stone after all. The tools for strong performances are clearly there, it just seems like Sandler more interested in giving roles to his buddies to make dumb jokes in bad sequels to movies that were themselves not any good.
Whether or not that’s what he should be doing with his talent is, of course, not our call to make, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to see glimpses of greatness continually obscured by his preference for recycling the bumbling man-child character that he’s been playing since his days on Saturday Night Live.
Of course, Sandler isn’t the only actor to tease audiences with excellent performances, only to retreat into more comfortable (usually terrible) roles. It wasn’t that long ago that Matthew McConaughey was a rom-com joke, more well known for taking his shirt off at every opportunity than for his acting chops. Then came Mud. And then Dallas Buyers’ Club. Add in True Detective and the McConaugh-sance was at full speed. Today, it would be way more surprising to see Mr. Alright, Alright, Alright star in a hokey romantic comedy than an Oscar-contending drama. It’s amazing the difference a few years can make.
There have been other comedians who’ve shown glimpses of that kind of turnaround, even if they never quite pulled it off. Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deliver performances that are as frustrating as they are impressive. If you’ve got that club in your bag, I want to scream, then why don’t you use it all the freaking time?
The answer, I’m sure, is more complicated than my golf metaphor would indicate. Who says that Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler get consistently offered the kinds of roles that would let them display their finer acting abilities, comedy or otherwise? It’s hard to use a club you don’t have access to.
But even in my most forgiving mood, I still find it irritating to see actors deliver one outstanding performance every 5 to 10 years, only to watch them sink back into their uninspiring comfort zones, especially when that comfort zone looks like Grown Ups 2. And listen, Adam Sandler doesn’t owe me anything. If he wants to keep giving Rob Schneider something to do once every 18 months for the rest of his life (and make a lot of money doing it), that’s just fine with me. If I’m honest, though, I have to admit that it would be great to see him keep following the road that The Meyerowitz Stories could open up for him.
Who knows; in eight months, maybe that road will end with Adam Freaking Sandler holding an Oscar. Go ahead, read that sentence again, and then spend some time wondering what kind of odds you could have gotten on that immediately following the first screenings of The Waterboy.