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Adam Sandler Is One of the World’s Best Actors, and His New Role Suggests He Finally Realizes It

Teaming up with the Safdie brothers after his brilliant work with Noah Baumbach, Adam Sandler might be ready to take himself seriously.

The Meyerowitz Stories Noah Baumbach

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”

Atsushi Nishijima

Last summer, in IndieWire’s review of “The Meyerowitz Stories,” this critic wrote that “It remains hugely frustrating how great Adam Sandler can be when he’s not making Adam Sandler movies.” If it didn’t seem necessary to hash out the distinction between a movie with Adam Sandler, and an Adam Sandler Movie, that’s only because the difference between the two is ridiculously obvious.

The former category includes fiercely beloved masterpieces like “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People.” The latter category includes minor crimes against humanity like “That’s My Boy” and “Grown Ups 2.” If you see him in something directed by James L. Brooks, someone who idolizes James L. Brooks, or even by someone who’s met James L. Brooks, then you’re probably watching a movie with Adam Sandler. If you see him in something that co-stars David Spade, features a scene where Shaquille O’Neal throws someone over a house, and/or involves a plot point about his character having sex with Vanilla Ice’s mom, then it’s safe to assume you’re watching an Adam Sandler Movie.

As judgmental as that dichotomy might sound, there’s a good chance that Sandler would be perfectly fine with the distinction. It’s not like I’ve cracked the Da Vinci Code, over here: He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s cool with it. There’s no doubt about that anymore, not after Sandler’s appearance in “Funny People” — a searing dramedy about a sell-out comedy star reckoning with his selfish and unsatisfied existence — only precipitated a series of bold new lows that began with “Jack and Jill,” led to “Pixels,” and culminated with a lucrative Netflix deal that made his diseased brand airborne.

Robert Pattinson in "Good Time"

“Good Time”

A24

But while the overwhelming majority of Sandler’s work falls into that second, much sillier group (which will likely welcome yet another new addition when Netflix drops “The Week Of” later this month), but recent years have seen the “SNL” alum start to balance things out a little. Not all of these projects necessarily pan out — the best thing about “Reign Over Me” was watching Sandler play “Shadow of the Colossus,” while Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” was basically just “Black Mirror” for soccer moms — but our man seems more eager than ever to flex his muscle.

“The Meyerowitz Stories” was phenomenal, and the news that Sandler will be starring in Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” means that his best work might still be yet to come. Plot details are still under wraps, but considering the flashes of genius that Sandler has shown before — and the unforgettable performances the Safdies’ have previously ripped out of raw vessels like Arielle Holmes and Robert Pattinson — there’s no reason not to expect something revelatory from this collaboration. At the very least, he can probably go ahead and book a flight to Cannes 2019 (airfare is a lot cheaper if you buy it 13 months in advance).

Perhaps even more excitingly, “Uncut Gems” could mark the moment when the Artist Formerly Known as Sandy Wexler decided to refocus his energies for good. There will always be Adam Sandler Movies, but the comic superstar’s decision to partner with the Safdies while he’s still tingling with the Oscar buzz he earned with Noah Baumbach suggests that he might finally be ready to embrace the fact that he’s grown into a more exciting actor than he is a comedian. (For contrast, six years elapsed between “Meyerowitz” and Sandler’s last dramatic role.)

From the outside, it’s hard to account for Sandler’s apparent change of heart. (He’s not currently doing interviews.) It could be that he had the time of his life on the “Meyerowitz” set, and found a new satisfaction in doing more serious work. It could be that he enjoyed the uncharacteristic wave of good press, and decided that he might as well take advantage of the freedom provided by his cushy Netflix deal. It could also be that the release of “The Meyerowitz Stories” — along with the ever-growing appreciation for “Punch-Drunk Love” and the ubiquity of “Funny People” on cable TV — has inspired a new crop of auteurs to keep him in mind.

In all likelihood, however, Sandler’s casting in “Uncut Gems” is yet another random event in a career that has never followed a predictable pattern, and he’s simply in the movie because Jonah Hill dropped out and the Safdies needed a star to replace him. It’s hard to imagine that his outlook has changed all that much since 2009, when he couldn’t fathom the toll that emotionally taxing roles would require from him. “I don’t know how these other actors go movie to movie and lose their mind in their roles and have a real life,” Sandler said while promoting “Funny People.”

But maybe he’s learning?

Here’s hoping, anyway. Sandler has too much to offer to only really apply himself twice every 10 years. He’s remarkable in “The Meyerowitz Stories,” extraordinary in the role of a limping divorcé who’s forced to confront his personal failures once his daughter leaves for college. Sandler endows the character with the same kind of self-loathing that burbles under all of his best performances, from Noah Baumbach to Billy Madison.

That volatile rage — which tends to erupt from his juvenile demeanor like a bad pimple — is Sandler’s ace in the hole, and it’s the first thing that major filmmakers tend to latch onto when they bring him into the fold. It’s what inspired Paul Thomas Anderson to create Barry Egan. It’s what made “Anger Management” (an Adam Sandler movie disguised as a movie with Adam Sandler) such a wasted opportunity. And knowing the Safdie brothers’ previous work, it’s what makes Sandler a perfect fit for “Uncut Gems.” The guy has always been a diamond in the rough, but he’s as brilliant as they come, and we can only hope that he’s finally ready to shine on a more regular basis.

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