Back in late July, after “Pixels” became a critical and commercial deathtrap, numerous media outlets published their obituaries for Adam Sandler’s career (see THR, Variety and New York Post for examples), and for good reason. In an industry where longterm success relies on versatility, the 49-year-old comedian has refused to move on from his immature, misogynistic routine. Sandler’s manchild schtick earned him blockbuster success in a string of 1990s hits, but these days it comes off as lazy and embarrassing, and it appears critics and audiences are no longer buying into it.
Making matters more frustrating is that every time Sandler has dared to step outside of his safe zone and show real glimmers of cinematic talent, he’s only retreated further back to his crude origins — this is an actor who followed up “Punch-Drunk Love” with “Eight Crazy Nights,” “Reign Over Me” with “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” and “Funny People” with “Grown Ups.” Sandler’s career is on its deathbed, but he’s shown enough promise in certain key roles that make the possibility of a career resurgence a not entirely outrageous idea.
As the actor celebrates his 49th birthday today, Indiewire looks to the independent filmmakers who could save what little is left of Adam Sandler.
Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punch-Drunk Love”) & Jason Reitman (“Men, Women & Children”)
At this point in his exasperated career, the easiest solution for Sandler would be to reunite with the indie filmmakers who have gotten the strongest work out of him. Paul Thomas Anderson and Jason Reitman may be painfully obvious choices, but they exposed so many interesting and complicated dimensions to Sandler that another go-around is really a no-brainer. Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” was destroyed by critics last year, but it showcased a dead-inside numbness to Sandler that was rather haunting in light of the actor’s usual over-enthusiasm. Such soullessness is mixed with volatile anger and a dying passion to connect in Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” still the best and most daring high-wire act the comedian has ever done. Sandler would only be so lucky if he got to reunite with either of these two indie icons.
David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “American Hustle”)
Every working actor would probably benefit by collaborating with David O. Russell, but something about Sandler’s manchild dependency seems especially ripe for the Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s skills. Russell has made a critical and financial killing by focusing on flawed characters in major life transitions, often those who have to face maturity in the eyes and reconcile the relationship between independence and codependence, all of which happen to be the pillars of Sandler’s comedy vehicles. But there’s a rage and a certain desperation to Russell’s characters that give them an extra dimension, especially his male characters (see Bradley Cooper), and it’s something Sandler could absolutely nail if his work on “Punch-Drunk Love” is any indication. Sandler rose to box office heights playing loud, messy and erratic manchildren, and with the right director, those qualities could dramatically soar on screen. Out of any director, Russell would bring out the best of the qualities we know Sandler already has.
Leslye Headland (“Bachelorette,” “Sleeping With Other People”)
One of Sandler’s biggest issues has always been his severe lack of restraint. While his 2012 comedy “That’s My Boy” could’ve marked an exciting shift away from family-oriented comedies to hard R-rated raunch, the film was a cringe-inducing misfire, mainly because it embraced its rating by going overboard with its hard partying and graphic bodily fluid jokes. Sandler loves some dirty innuendo and slapstick, and he should have every right to bring such antics to the big screen as long as they serve some kind of greater narrative or character-building purpose. For this reason, Leslye Headland could be a huge savior for the actor’s risqué comedy chops. In “Bachelorette” and “Sleeping With Other People,” the writer-director has expertly given raunch a necessary reason to exist. Her jokes can be as dirty and crude as anything coming out of the Sandler machine, but they always come from a genuine place for the characters and thus never run the risk of crossing the line. Even if Sandler never works with the gifted playwright-turned-filmmaker, he may want to take some notes from her on how to give comedy a successful nasty edge.
Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies,” “Digging For Fire”)
The more Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore sensibilities expand into mainstream delights, the more it seems Adam Sandler could be the right fit for his casual, everyday aesthetic. When the actor is given the opportunity to tone things down in his performance style and take on some serious self-reflection with his characters, he always finds a way to do so with an unassuming sensitivity (see “Funny People” or even “Click” for great examples). Sandler has no problem being the loudest person in the room, but his best and most deeply felt work comes when he’s allowed to play it straight and explore certain midlife crises with a relatable sheen. Swanberg could absolutely be his winning ticket in this department, for the director’s low-key charm relies almost entirely on his actors’ authenticity in front of the camera. As more high profile names find their way into the Swanberg canon, Sandler would be wise to join in.
Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”)
Writer-director Craig Johnson has only made two feature films to date — the Mark Duplass-starring “True Adolescents” and the Sundance favorite “The Skeleton Twins” with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig — but like David O. Russell, he has shown an emotional allegiance to exploring characters in arrested development, which is more or less Sandler’s archetype at this point. Hader’s revelatory work in “The Skeleton Twins” is much of what suggests why the director would be able to do wonders with Sandler. Allowing Hader to keep his knack for flamboyant physicality but filling it with a core of dark drama and self-loathing troubles, Johnson effortlessly created a comedic character born from drama, a mix that Sandler has already triumphed at in “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People.” Johnson’s delicate balance in tone would provide a suitable showcase for Sandler, who would be able to somehow keep his immaturity while giving it a dramatic self-reflective core.
Gillian Robespierre (“Obvious Child”)
“Obvious Child” may be the only item on Gillian Robespierre’s feature filmography so far, but the wonderful romantic-comedy is enough to make her a prospective choice for an Adam Sandler collaboration. Another tale of maturity conflicting with arrested development, Robespierre created an understated naturalism that gave even the most cliche moments a self-effacing vibrancy. Sandler needs a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to be immaturely funny but who can still restrain himself/herself from going too far, and that is one of Robespierre’s biggest strengths in her acclaimed debut. Working with star Jenny Slate, Robespierre has all of the sex jokes and fart humor of a Sandler classic, but her humble realism goes miles in grounding all of the raunch in a real world filled with real people. It’s about time Sandler abandoned his broadly defined characters and painfully forced high concept plots, and Robespierre could certainly be the solution here.