Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mindful Over Mindless: The Serious Side of Adam Sandler

WRITER'S NOTE: This piece focuses on films in Adam Sandler's resume where he put aside his typical goofy persona in favor of depth and understanding. Hence, films like The Wedding Singer, Click and Funny People aren't included on here, although they are commendable for showing Sandler's range as an actor.

The Mindful and the Mindless
The late film critic Roger Ebert once said, "I've met Adam Sandler a couple of times and he's a nice guy, smart and personable. Considering what I've written about his movies, he could also be described as forgiving and tactful. What I cannot understand is why he has devoted his career to finding new kinds of obnoxious voices and the characters to go along with them." Ebert also questioned why Sandler typically insists on playing goofy, lazy, and/or immature characters. Audiences (myself included) couldn't agree more, considering the fact that his recent movies (Jack & Jill, That's My Boy, Blended, and Pixels, among others) have been overblown, unfunny and, dare I say, resulted in poor box-office.

People have often perceived these and a majority of Sandler's films as mindless. One resource even went as far as making a list of so-called trademarks in his films, which include the aforementioned "obnoxious voices," crude sexual and/or offensive gags, shameless product placement, cameo appearances from various celebrities, and forced sentimentality. Some have wondered what message (if any) Sandler has been trying to send, or if he's just trying to be funny by any means necessary?

Simple Minds (with Complexity)
Sandler certainly has an admirable and likable personality in real life, and it's easy to see why many people like him. I may agree with a friend of mine in saying that he's best when he's serious. Make no mistake, there are moments from his old movies that are classics (Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, anybody?), and there is a distinction in his characters, even though they are essentially one-dimensional. But it's when he does things for performance and not for cash-cow purposes that he really stands out.

Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love
Case in point: the 2002 critically-acclaimed, quirky and dark romance Punch-Drunk Love. This is a different kind of movie than what the SNL funnyman was previously known for. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a small novelty business owner who suffers from uncontrollable rage and emotions (another trait of Sandler's typical characters), partially due to the constant torment he receives from his seven sisters on a daily basis. One night, out of the sheer need to talk to somebody about his problems, he calls a phone-sex line, which only makes his life more complicated. That is, until he meets a mysterious woman named Lena (Emily Watson), who eventually brings out something in him that he never thought possible. This is arguably Sandler's best film to date (and his best reviewed, according to Rotten Tomatoes).

Ironically, many people (some die-hard Sandler fans) have said they were confused and disappointed by this one. Hence, this kind of movie, upon first-viewing, could be seen as "mindless" or trippy. But if one looks passed the Kubrick-esque and loopy elements and looks deep at the themes and ideas director Paul Thomas Anderson explores and illustrates, we find a story about a lonely man who finds and learns about love and companionship. In that regard, along with the fact that Sandler's character develops and matures (if only to a degree), we can find somewhat of a "mindful" performance.

Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer
With the possible exception of director Frank Coraci's 1998 movie The Wedding Singer (in which Sandler played 80s singer Robbie Hart), Anderson (who previously directed Boogie Nights and Magnolia) was the first filmmaker to really bring out a different side of Sandler. He has called this "an arthouse Adam Sandler film," yet it's very distinct and unconventional in the way Barry deals with his issues, and in his humility and flaws as he finds love in Emily Watson's character. Though not for everybody, this is the kind of movie that has the power to generate cinematic and spiritual discussion, should audiences choose to see it.

One may ask, though: Did this indicate a potentially new direction in Sandler's career, similar to what The Truman Show did for Jim Carrey? Or, like Anderson's film, was it just an experiment? Other directors who've followed suit have included James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets), Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), and Jason Reitman (Juno).

John Clasky in Spanglish
In Spanglish (2004), Sandler plays John Clasky, a renowned chef and devoted father with a bipolar wife and a Hispanic housemaid. Although he has more of a supporting role under Paz Vega's shining performance in director James L. Brooks' family dramedy, Sandler expresses understanding and confliction as a family man in the midst of a struggling marriage.

Charlie Fineman in Reign Over Me
In Reign Over Me (2007), Sandler gives possibly his most emotional and intense performance in director Mike Binder's drama as Charlie Fineman, a widow who lost his family on 9/11, and whose heart begins to open up again, thanks to the support and accountability of an old friend (played by Don Cheadle).

Don Truby in Men, Women and Children
In his most recent serious performance, in director Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, Sandler plays Don Truby, a man struggling with his relationship with his wife and son in the age of social media.

"Who knows how long it'll last?"
The slogan for the 2011 movie Young Adult (which Reitman also directed) reads, "Everybody gets older. Not everybody grows up." Likewise, is it appropriate to say that Adam Sandler has grown up? Or is he being pretentious and still marveling in manchild-like antics? (Some of these ideas are what others may possibly be thinking, and not just my own thoughts.) I can't help but wonder why he doesn't make more movies that have sincerity or depth or understanding. Some may even begin to think he simply doesn't know how anymore. Roger Ebert concluded in another of his Sandler reviews (read here), "He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he? Who would have guessed he had such uncharted depths?" I, for one, believe he still does.

FUN FACT: My middle school class once voted me as "most likely to be the next Adam Sandler". I couldn't disagree more. However, out of any character Sandler has ever played, I identify with Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love the most. 

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