This weekend, the Safdie Brothers’ film Uncut Gems saw its theatrical release. While the Safdies have been making films for over a decade at this point, they hit the public consciousness with their 2017 movie Good Time, in which we follow Robert Pattinson on a mad dash through New York City as he attempts to scrape together some bail money for his brother. A bunch of stuff happens and it is all incredibly thrilling, the soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin (b.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) is fantastic, and in the end no one learns a lesson. It’s basically perfect.
Good Time is unforgettable for a bunch of reasons, but the movie really shines thanks to Pattinson’s performance, which works in part because every second he’s onscreen he’s behaving — and looking — like a piece of shit. He “disappears” into the character, but he does so in the way that famous people always do where you’re constantly saying to yourself, this is the Twilight dude, and oh wow he can actually act his ass off. The Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, attempts to do the same, but with Adam Sandler. This is such a great idea that it makes me want to throw up.
Adam Sandler holds the distinction of being our generation’s most successful movie star who has appeared in an overwhelming number of completely terrible movies that have nonetheless made so much money. Conventional wisdom states that Punch Drunk Love is fantastic, Funny People is okay, the Noah Baumbach movie he did was pretty great too, and everything else he’s done ranges from mediocre to total crap. (While Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison are technically “comedy classics” for millennials of a certain age, they only remain that way as long as you don’t watch them as an adult.) This is especially true of Sandler’s dramatic roles, which include The Cobbler, about a cobbler who can literally walk a mile in people’s shoes; Sandy Wexler, in which Adam Sandler plays a fictional version of his own agent; and Spanglish, which is a movie I watched as a teenager and cannot recall a single moment of. They are, and I’m being charitable here, black holes from which enjoyment cannot escape.
However, it’s not that the Sand Man is a terrible actor who happens to occasionally get used in interesting ways by auteur directors; instead, Adam Sandler is a fantastic actor who just makes bad movies. In a 2017 piece for The New Yorker, film critic Richard Brody makes a case for Sandler’s misunderstood brilliance, comparing his working-class worldview to that of Jerry Lewis (cut Weird Al’s “Genius in France”). Brody writes:
Sandler is a comedian who doesn’t actually do anything; he’s not a physical comedian, he doesn’t tell jokes, and he’s not even a great mimic. His comedy is in his timing, his infinitesimal delay — and it’s effective because, at those moments, he’s a pure presence whose hiccups of silence conceal something far nastier, far more bitter, far uglier than anything he’s actually going to say. [...] But it’s also that very presence, the power of that mere and static presence, that’s the definition of a movie star and the essence of Sandler’s own aptitude for drama as well as for comedy.
I agree with Brody’s assessment wholeheartedly. In fact, I would posit that when Sandler is in a real clunker, his talent is such that it draws attention to the miasma of shit swirling around him, making an already bad movie even worse.
Consider his 2007 movie Reign Over Me, a film so bad that despite recouping its budget at the box office, we as a society have agreed to never talk about it ever again. It stars Adam Sandler as Adam Sandler With a Bob Dylan Haircut, who rekindles a friendship with his former college roommate, played by Don Cheadle. Sandler’s character — whose name, I must inform you, is Charlie Fineman (“Fine Man,” get it?) — is a grieving widower who has been unable to get over the fact that his wife and daughters died on 9/11. He’s a recluse who plays videogames and listens to a lot of classic rock on big headphones.
Fineman is soft-spoken and gentle, almost childlike, yet prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, like Adam Sandler’s characters in the big, broad comedies Happy Gilmore, Mr. Deeds, The Waterboy, and oh shit I get it now, he’s doing Adam Sandler, But Make It Sad. Even within this ridiculous plot and overwrought script, Sandler still manages to find pockets of brilliance, playing with our understanding that he could fly off the handle at any second — and that this time, it won’t be funny. Knowing that Adam Sandler could lose his shit at any moment creates a sense of dread in the viewer, and that dread helps carry the movie even as everything besides his performance is dumb as hell.
To wit, just watch this clip of Adam Sandler telling Don Cheadle about the loss of his family. It’s not a very well-written speech, yet Sandler nevertheless sells completely, harping on details about the family cat and taking his shoes off, slowly building up to the great tragedy we can tell is coming, reaching that vulnerable place that great actors reach where it doesn’t really matter what they’re saying because we know it all in their face and tone. And good God, is it convenient that Sandler is in that place in that scene, because again, he is telling Don Cheadle that his entire family died in 9/11. Anyways, here it is:
It’s a bad speech in a bad movie, and yet I watch it and say to myself, “Yeah, I could see Adam Sandler winning an Oscar for something that was extremely not this.” At his best, Sandler projects the energy of a dad who seems nice enough on the surface, but just below the surface hides a sense of deep pain, and things are constantly on the verge of bubbling up to the surface. I don’t blame him for not going to that place more often; if I had the choice between starring in half-assed bro-comedies that were going to make me millions of dollars regardless of how much they sucked, or taking an artistic risk by starring in something weird and dark that might alienate the people who pay my bills, I honestly don’t know which one I’d pick. Especially when the risk of failure for the former is virtually nonexistent, while the risk of failure for the latter is… making another Reign Over Me.
Even still, I honestly don’t know why Adam Sandler doesn’t make better movies when he decides to get serious. Does he just not know the difference between a good movie and a bad one? Is it a thing where he figures that the point of him doing a drama is watching him do a drama and so the script and director don’t matter? Or, like a superhero and/or Jedi Master in seclusion, is he afraid of his own power? Maybe it’s just that Adam Sandler has been around the entertainment industry long enough to know that actors who take on a bunch of really challenging roles end up driving themselves nuts, and he’d rather be a well-adjusted person who never puts himself in a mental space that could freak his kids out if they walked in on him rehearsing his lines at night.
The simplest and therefore most likely explanation is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of effort Adam Sandler puts into his movies and their box-office returns. While it’s now heralded as one of the best films of the 2000s, Punch-Drunk Love was a box-office failure at the time of its release, and Funny People, in which Sandler attempted a serious role yet stayed in his comfort zone by working with his longtime friend Judd Apatow, similarly failed to earn more than it cost to actually create.
Uncut Gems, however, might be the Adam Sandler movie to break that mold. The film earned $528,498 over its opening weekend: Hardly anything to write home about, especially if you’re Adam Sandler, until you consider that it was only playing in five theaters in the entire country, meaning that it averaged $105,700 per screen. If it gets a wider release… well, who knows? Maybe if the movie’s a hit, Sandler will make a second career out of showing us the actor he’s truly been all along.