“Man, what happened to Adam Sandler?” is a question I hear a lot. Every time a new Sandler movie comes out, this question will come as a text from my friends, in conversation with people at work, and even on the occasional sports site I frequent. The most recent outpouring of this sentiment came on the heels of Sandler’s latest movie The Ridiculous 6, a Western spoof released as part of Sandler’s Netflix package deal. I’m a huge Adam Sandler fan and enjoy the vast majority of his movies. I watched Ridiculous 6 and can confirm that it was not a good movie.
The majority of people who perceive the lapse in Sandler’s performance fit into one or both of the following categories: they are in their mid-20s to early-40s and/or the first Sandler movie they saw was Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. These groups are important because those in the first group were at their peak of immaturity in life who could relate with Sandler’s insanely immature characters and stories. Those in the second group, who may have already reached a higher level of maturity, became Sandler fans during a really good stretch of movies, which would set unreasonably high expectations. Both groups knew Sandler at his peak, so when the later movies weren’t as relatable or not as good, there was noticeable drop off.
So, what happened to Sandler? Personally, I believe Sandler’s decline is simply part of a cycle most comedy actors go through. To demonstrate this cycle we’ll look at Sandler’s career over the last 20 years compared to a couple of his contemporaries: Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell. Stiller and Ferrell are chosen largely because their careers compare favorably, from their pre-movie backgrounds at SNL to being king of the comedy mountain, and also because their most active periods of work have all coincided. Another reason these two were picked is because they seem to have escaped the same barrage of criticism that Sandler sustains. Here is a table of each actor and their movies (as lead actors) along with their IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes scores.
One thing that’s clear from a quick glance of this chart is that these three have worked a lot over the last twenty years. Sandler has 32 movies as leading man while Stiller has 29 and Ferrell has 22. The critical ratings of the three are also very similar. Sandler posted averages of 5.8 on IMDb and 52.5 on RT, Stiller with 6.1 and 52.6, and Ferrell with 6.3 and 43.3. When it comes to comedies, critical success can be misleading. In fact, the IMDb numbers are probably more important in this case because they’re user reviews as opposed to critical ones. Keep in mind these numbers aren’t provided to validate the quality of the three careers; rather, I show them to demonstrate how similar the actors’ careers have been.
Now, as for that cycle I mentioned earlier. Think of the best comic actors over the last 30ish years. You’ll get names like Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, maybe Vince Vaughn, and so on. Each of these actors hits for about a five to ten year period and then suddenly starts making crap films. Look at Sandler’s list of movies. With the exception of maybe Bulletproof, Sandler had pretty solid hits with five of his first six movies. He was able to comfortably ride this run through the mid-late 2000s with sporadic hits, but a still solid output of movies. Once 2010 hit, though, the bottom kind of fell out in terms of critical success and how people felt about his movies.
Stiller’s high point started with There’s Something About Mary and stayed strong until Dodgeball, but has mostly tapered off with the occasional hit like Tropic Thunder or Madagascar 3. Stiller is currently in the downside of the cycle, where his biggest hits are mostly franchise sequels and his new comedies don’t score as well with audiences. Ferrell, the most recent heir to the mantle, got hot with Anchorman and had maybe the strongest run of the bunch. Ferrell is showing signs of the dip now, however, with his last few movies scoring low with reviewers and fans (Daddy’s Home is currently showing a good 6.6 IMDb rating, but this number is hardly conclusive due to the movie being out one weekend). Something Stiller and Ferrell have benefited from is that their biggest hits have been spread out through their primes, whereas Sandler’s best hits all clustered around the beginning of his run.
Though I’ve consistently heard the Sandler reproach since Punch Drunk Love, the throng of Sandler bashers really hit a peak with Jack and Jill. That movie looked so bad that even I swore it off. One of my friends declared he would not watch any new Sandler movies period based solely off the trailer for Jack and Jill. Since then he’s had commercial success with Hotel Transylvania and Grown Ups, but those movies have a decidedly more family friendly tone than what Sandler fans expect. This change is important to longevity, though. Stiller’s career is still as strong as it is largely due to success of the Night at the Museum and Madagascar frachises. Ferrell, on the other hand, has not reached this point but he has made himself a bankable family film voice actor with Megamind and his appearance in The Lego Movie.
The 25-40 year old demographic that grew up with Sandler wants everything to be like Gilmore or Waterboy, yet when Sandler does a movie like Zohan or That’s My Boy which are similar in style and tone, only to complain when they’re not as good as the earlier movies. Funny People and Click seemed like can’t miss movies because of the legit costars and directing names attached, but when those movies turned out to be far more heavy than we expected, we were disappointed. This isn’t a waiver for all of Sandler’s movies. I’ll be the first to tell you that Jack and Jill looked like one of the worst movies ever. The Cobbler wasn’t awful, it just wasn’t a straight comedy. As for Ridiculous 6, if anybody watched a trailer or read about the movie, it looked like it was going to be horrible. The cast is nothing but Sandler friends and they’re basically making fun of Western movie tropes. When I clicked play on Netflix I knew what I was getting myself into and adjusted my expectations accordingly.
The answer to “what has happened to Sandler?” is simple, time happened. We as an audience have seen Sandler’s bit for 20 years now and it’s gotten old. Instead of having a good movie every five or six years like Stiller and Ferrell, he put out his best movies 20 years ago and has been steadily heading downhill since then. Despite positive showings in Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and Spanglish, he’s never been viewed as a versatile actor so unless he reinvents himself, don’t expect anything to change. My guess is that he’s aware that he’s declining as a bankable star so he’s making a ton of movies while he still can. This isn’t some sad riding off into the sunset decline, Sandler is doing this while hanging out with all of his friends and making a ton of money. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal if you ask me. As I said earlier, I’m a huge Sandler fan and will likely watch most of his future movies, even though many of you will understandably not give it a second glance. When you see that future trailer and start to shake your head in disgust, remember that it’s not the Sandler of old, and for goodness sake please don’t ask me “what happened to Sandler?”