Adam Sandler isn’t just good. He’s one of the best to ever do it.

No one has been more unfairly scrutinized, severely under-appreciated, and blatantly disrespected.

Right now, we find ourselves in a familiar spot in the public discourse surrounding Mr. Adam Sandler.

I say familiar because we’ve been here before. Many times, in fact. It first happened back in 2002, with what was then Sandler’s first serious, dramatic, head-turning role in the strange but wonderful rom-com masterpiece Punch Drunk Love. Then, in 2017, we got this same kind of talk again with Sandler’s work in the brilliantly funny dramedy The Meyerowitz Stories. And while this film also stars acclaimed actor Dustin Hoffman and comedy icon Ben Stiller, it’s Sandler who ends up commanding your attention, even when he isn’t saying a word. Two years later, this same conversation crept up again, only this time with some serious Oscar buzz for Sandler’s portrayal as a gambling-addicted, down-on-his-luck jeweler who bets it all in the anxiety-ridden, panic-inducing modern classic Uncut Gems. (If there’s one thing that tops both the greatness of this film and Sandler’s work in it, it’s the legendary flurry of memes it helped generate—God bless the Internet.)

I Disagree Adam Sandler GIF by A24 - Find & Share on GIPHY
He doesn’t actually disagree with my previous statement–it’s just the most famous meme/gif from the movie.

And now, a full 20 years since this debate started, we’ve somehow circled back to it yet again. Only this time, the film spurring the conversation is Sandler’s latest Netflix release, Hustle—a film that finds the Sandman entirely in his wheelhouse as an under-appreciated NBA scout in search of the sport’s next big star. And while Hustle could have easily been just another mediocre sports movie, hitting all the expected elements of the genre in a paint-by-numbers kind of way—it’s got your classic rags to riches narrative, fast-paced training montages, and rah-rah speeches—it’s Sandler dazzling performance that elevates the film into something special (what Brad Pitt and Moneyball were to the world of baseball, Sandler and Hustle do the same for the hoops world).

So in light of another genuinely outstanding Sandler performance in a truly great movie, the same tiresome discussion about him rages on a little longer. And if by chance, you’re entirely unaware of what this debate is—kudos to you if you are, by the way, for having a real life and staying off the Internet—the main talking point goes something like this: Yes, Adam Sandler is indeed a good actor. Pretty positive, right?

Except it isn’t. There’s something about this statement that doesn’t sit well with me and never has. You see, under all the praise Sandler’s received, there’s this not-so-subtle layer of resentment that bleeds through. Every positive review, every nice word that’s ever been said or written about him always comes off like a backhanded compliment—only it’s thrown with the same level of force and vitriol as a full-blown right hook to the jaw; it’s meant to hurt. Why do I think this? Because even when Sandler is great, the recognition of his greatness is almost always immediately followed up with some snarky-ass comment highlighting all the terrible films he’s made. And to be fair, he’s made a ton. So, to put it another way, or to read deeper into this prevailing sentiment echoed by critics and film snobs alike, it should be more like this: Yes, Adam Sandler is indeed a good actor…when he wants to be.

And it’s here where my umbrage kicks into high gear for two reasons. First, this kind of thinking implies that Sandler is often lazy and doesn’t try, with the only piece of corroborating evidence being that Sandler has made more than his fair share of terrible films. Of course, this hot take turns into complete and utter horseshit should you stop and think about it for longer than two seconds. And it’s such a misguided and befuddling argument that it’s hard to take the person seriously after attempting to make such a point. So Sandler has made some bad movies…okay, and? Since when did bad immediately equate to lazy? And I’m not entirely convinced you can actually label these movies bad for reasons I’ll get into in a bit.

Second, this line of thinking draws a clear distinction between Sandler’s so-called serious work, which has only recently become safe enough to praise, and the comedic work that turned him into a household name and a millionaire multiple times over (and is actually quite good in it’s own right). To even draw such a distinction in the first place engages in a grotesque and off-putting level of film elitism, with those holding such an opinion distinguishing a sizable portion of Sandler’s work as having little to no inherent value or merit—again, this is horseshit. By holding this opinion, these people are sticking their collective noses up at the vast majority of moviegoers, many of whom are likely Sandler fans, whose main drive for going to the theater or queuing up a movie on Netflix is to laugh, be entertained, and have a light, breezy escape from the reality of the world for only a few hours.

I’m not suggesting that films can not and should not challenge the audience—be it in the thematic elements they explore or in the filmmaking techniques used to convey the narrative, or that films shouldn’t make the audience uncomfortable. For some films, including some of the greatest ever made, these things are precisely the point. But to suggest that the only films with value are those that aspire to and achieve these lofty goals while deeming everything else as trash or meaningless or, even worse, “not real cinema” is preposterous and alienating and, quite frankly, an asshole move. It’s just not how most ordinary people engage with movies.

And it’s this film elitist mindset that’s proven to be the fundamental flaw when most critics and film enthusiasts—I’ll try to be nice from here on out and not label them snobs—discuss the legacy of Sandler. Because when we’re talking about Adam Sandler, we aren’t talking about an actor who occasionally flirts with greatness. We’re talking about someone who’s been great since the very beginning, even when people wrote him off as a goofball. We’re talking about a cinematic genius hiding in plain sight.

Simply put, when we’re talking about Adam Sandler, we’re talking about one of the greatest actors of all time. Period. No caveats.

And it’s long past time we give this man his damn flowers.

Plotting Adam Sandler GIF by A24 - Find & Share on GIPHY
Adam Sandler hasn’t become great recently. He’s been great since the start.

Here’s the thing: there isn’t another actor in the history of motion pictures that’s been more unfairly scrutinized, more severely under-appreciated, and more blatantly disrespected than Adam Sandler. Case in point, let’s take a look at this list I ran across on the Internet recently. The title: “Best Living American Actors.” Before we go any further, I’d like for you to go ahead and venture a guess as to where you think Sandler landed on this list. Remember, it’s only actors from the states and only those still alive and kicking. Think you got it?

Drumroll, please—on a list of best living American actors, Adam Sandler ranked…107th.

Excuse the language, but are you fucking kidding me? Seriously? Truth be told, this shitshow of a list served as the catalyst for what you’re reading now because clearly, something has gone drastically awry, and a wrong needs to be righted. And you know what they say, if you want something done right you gotta do it yourself. So this is my attempt at doing it myself. Two things, though, before we continue. One, if you couldn’t tell from this rather long-winded but hopefully necessary and interesting introduction, this article is a long one, so strap yourself in. Two, my only request of you is to keep an open mind, no matter how wacky this thing gets, and trust me, it’s going to feel like the plane is getting a little squirrely in parts. But rest assured, my intention is to put this sonofabitch down easy on the runway. No promises, though. And without further ado, here’s my defense of Adam Sandler as an all-time acting legend.

Any defense of Sandler as one of the best to ever grace a movie screen has to concede a rather obvious point: Adam Sandler has made a ton of shitty movies. Movies so shitty they’re actually quite painful to watch. You know the ones I’m talking about, too. I’m sure you’ve probably seen a few of them, albeit regrettably. Perfect example: for this article, I attempted to watch Little Nicky—you know, the one where Sandler plays the literal son of Satan, mumbles out the side of his mouth, and walks with an unconvincing limp for seemingly no reason, or at least no reason I remember. I only made it to the 25-minute mark before turning it off. I couldn’t take it anymore. And during those agonizing 25-minutes, you know what I never did? Laugh. Not even a slight chuckle. Hell, I never even smiled. I watched it the same way I’d imagine one would watch…I don’t know, dental work being done to someone other than yourself. You’d sit there, your mind drowning in a sea of boredom and agony and confusion, with a little touch of existential crisis that causes you to question your existence and reexamine all the horrendous choices you made that brought you to this moment—real heavy ass stuff.

Looking back, this choice to make Little Nicky is even more eyebrow-raising considering where Sandler was in his career at the time. He was at the top of his game, riding high off a string of resounding box office success, and he could’ve gotten any movie he wanted greenlit. As to why he thought this movie was the right choice is a head-scratcher, to say the least, but as they say, hindsight is 2020. I bring up the failure of Little Nicky to say this: too often when discussing the career of Sandler, there’s this tendency to throw too many of his movies into the same artistic dumpster fire of fare like Little Nicky, when in reality, the vast majority of his films fall on the range of meh to pretty decent (the great Sandler movies and performances will all be explicitly mentioned and talked about in this article as they make up the bulk of my case for him being a first ballot hall of famer). 50 First Dates, Click, The Longest Yard, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Grown Ups, and yes, even Hubie Halloween all have a certain charm to them, and while I don’t consider them great, it’s one hell of a stretch to call them bad. The main issue with these films is that they suffer from the same problem most Sandler comedies suffer from: They fail to recapture the magic of those early Sandler comedies from the 1990s (more on this later).

But if we really stop and think about it, can movies like Little Nicky, The Do-Over, and the rest of the objectively horrendous Sandler movies actually be considered bad? (It’s at this point in our plane metaphor where we’re about to come up on quite a bit of turbulence, and those overhead oxygen masks are about to tumble down, but don’t worry. Just calmly slip the oxygen over your nose and relax. We’re fine…I hope.)

To illustrate my point, we need to utilize one of philosophy’s—yes, I’m going there—greatest argumentative tools: the thought experiment. Let’s imagine for a second you’re sitting at a table and in front of you is a box of pissed-off vipers. You know it’s a box of pissed-off vipers because 1) you have eyes and can see the mean-lookin’ sonsofbitches, and 2) there’s a sign pinned to the front of the box that reads “Beware! Pissed Off Vipers! Don’t Be A Dumbass and Stick Your Hand Inside!

It should be noted that as long as you do nothing, the vipers pose no threat to you whatsoever. So do nothing, and nothing happens. But, for the sake of our experiment, let’s say you’re one of those “have to see for myself” type of folks, and you ignore the rather aggressive signage and stick your hand down inside the box. At which point, pissed-off vipers do what pissed-off vipers do, and they bite the everlovin’ hell out of your hand.

Given all that, here’s the question: Who’s at fault here? The vipers or you? To bring this back around to Sandler and his terrible movies, how could any sensible, reasonable person look at this movie poster…

And come away with any other conclusion other than this movie, should you decide to purchase a ticket, is going to be the absolute drizzling shits? This poster serves the same function as the beware sign on the front of our hypothetical snake box: It’s an explicit warning. It’s telling you precisely what to expect out of the experience.

With that said, let’s pose another philosophical question: Can something be considered bad—meaning there’s an unexpected, negative outcome—if all indicators beforehand point towards the thing being bad to begin with? In other words, can you call something bad if you get precisely what’s been advertised? I suppose, technically, you could, but it seems a little nonsensical to do so, don’t you think? I mean, if a place was selling shit sandwiches, and you bought one and ate it, only to realize it was, in fact, a literal shit sandwich, wouldn’t it be the ultimate Karen move to get upset and complain to the manager? The blame doesn’t fall on anyone else but yourself. And to Sandler’s credit, these movies deliver exactly what’s been promised, and they never pull a bait and switch. What you see is what you end up getting.

Still, it begs the question of why Sandler made and continues to make these terrible movies in the first place. This is a fair question to ask but not a difficult one to answer, given the primary motivation for making these movies—aside from the obvious of making money, but that motivation isn’t unique to Sandler—is also routinely front and center in the film’s promotion. These recent movies serve as nothing more than an elaborate excuse to travel to exotic locations and hang out with his famous friends while being paid an exorbitant amount of money to do so. That’s it—that’s the reason.

This isn’t just my interpretation of what’s happening. Sandler himself has said as much in interviews. After all, why do you think the posters for these movies feature backdrops full of palm trees and sandy beaches and crystal clear water? Why are the trailers for these movies jam-packed with majestic sweeping aerials that show off the gorgeous, heavenly landscapes? It goes far beyond the simple fact that most moviegoers watch movies as a means of escape—and what better place to escape to than literal paradise?—it’s the fact that, besides the money, the trip to paradise is the point of it all. So again, we have to tip the cap to Sandler for not hiding this fact. And as hard as this is to believe, even these awful Sandler flicks have a devoted fanbase that enjoy the hell out of them, and there isn’t a single soul on this planet that should judge these folks or attempt to make them feel less than for getting a kick out of seeing Sandler dress up like a woman or try to play an action hero. Even if the whole thing is patently terrible.

If the movie’s quality and intention weren’t so evidently transparent, then perhaps there would be a fair reason for the backlash. But considering how these movies are advertised before anyone buys a ticket—and some of the truly awful ones have been released on Netflix where the only cost involved is 90-minutes of your time—it seems dumb for these movies to be received and talked about in such a way. And I wouldn’t have wasted precious real estate mentioning them in this article if it weren’t for the fact these movies have ultimately been weaponized in the fight against Sandler’s greatness and legacy as if he’s committed some unforgivable sin.

A far greater sin, and something Sandler has never done, is when a movie harnesses the power of an expensive marketing budget to sell the public on the idea that the movie is actually good, thus luring people out of their hard-earned money and into the theater—where popcorn and a Coke costs just as much as a dinner at Texas Roadhouse—only to then have them sit through an abysmal movie that, in most cases, everyone involved in the marketing of knew was abysmal to begin with. Recent examples of this include Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, and The Circle, starring Tom Hanks—all men, by the way, who ranked much higher than Sandler on the list we mentioned earlier (Hanks took the top spot overall), all men whose greatness is perceived to be far greater than Sandler’s, and all men who never seem to get hit with the same level of animosity or critique when they make a terrible flick, which they do.

And this brings me to my next point: Why is it that Sandler is the only actor whose terrible work is constantly held against him, even when he does something great? To draw a parallel, when we discuss the greatness of, say, Robert De Niro—one of America’s finest actors—do we bring up all the shit work he’s done? When discussing De Niro’s performance in The Irishman, another modern classic, did anyone bring up his work in The Comedian, Grudge Match, or The Bag Man—all individually awful—as a precursor to discredit or recontextualize the work he did in The Irishman? Of course not. Didn’t happen (and if it did, it got nowhere near the level of traction these “Sandler is good, but…” articles do whenever a great Sandler film comes out).

One could argue all this is because De Niro has built up a lifetime’s worth of goodwill with all the iconic movies he’s made and the groundbreaking, influential roles he’s had throughout his career. Which is a fair and correct argument to make that totally hits the nail on the head. But…can the same not be said for Sandler, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale? Why is it only Sandler whose horrendous work is perpetually held over his head? And if you don’t believe that’s the case, I’d like to point you to the words of one anonymous Academy voter back in 2020 who practically said as much when they told The New York Post it was Sandler’s terrible movies that were the reason for his snubbing of a Best Actor nomination for Uncut Gems—a role that was as deserving as anything else that year and should have won. But, again, what makes this so egregiously unfair is that it doesn’t seem to be the case for anyone else.

Take Matthew McConaughey’s career, for example. McConaughey spent the better part of the 1990s as a bright, young actor full of star potential. But his career took a downturn, at least artistically, in the 2000s as he became pigeon-holed as the leading man of subpar, generic, forgettable romantic comedies—rom-coms like The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, and the truly bizarre Tiptoes, which if you’ve never seen the trailer for, I suggest you pause here and check it out (here’s the link). Nothing Sandler has ever done comes close to sniffing the profound, bat-shit absurdity and badness of Tiptoes—a movie that accomplishes the rare feat of not having a single redeeming quality throughout its entire runtime. And while we’re at it, none of the McConaughey rom-coms touch the excellence of Punch Drunk Love or The Wedding Singer. And yet, in 2014, as a culmination of the McConaissance that started with the enjoyable The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey took home the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Ron Woodroff in Dallas Buyers Club—one of the few times in recent memory where the Academy actually got it right.

Still though, given the comments made by the anonymous Academy voter in 2020, you have to wonder why McConaughey’s less than stellar work wasn’t held against him when, just half a decade later, the Academy would seemingly change course in regards to recognizing Sandler? Why was McConaughey given a pass, but Sandler given the middle finger?

No one can say for sure, though I highly doubt it’s because Sandler is hated. As far as I know, no one has ever had a bad thing to say about him, at least publicity, and given the man’s spent over 30 years in the public eye, that’s quite an impressive feat. From the outside looking in, he seems like one of the most down-to-earth, humble dudes in Hollywood, which is saying a lot considering that place has earned a reputation for turning even the most well-intentioned, sweetest people into complete assholes. So if it isn’t hatred, what is it? Again, spitballing here, but for me, it looks like it boils down to nothing more than just plain ol’ jealousy. The cool kids in Tinsel Town see Sandler’s success as one of the most bankable stars in American history as undeserving—that his talent doesn’t warrant the boatloads of money and fame he’s received. That’s all a guess, though. An educated one, I think, but still a guess.

What’s the actual argument for Sandler being an all-time great, though? My entire case can’t simply be me poking holes in all the typical anti-Sandler rhetoric out there. At some point, I need to do some actual convincing. I gotta bring the facts. So to do that, let’s turn back the clock to the 1990s and discuss the five films from this period that helped transform Sandler from a funny, SNL standout in the early half of the decade to a bonafide mega-movie star by the end of it.

With the exception of Billy Madison—which has its moments but feels more like a series of skits rather than a cohesive film—these movies are some of the greatest and most influential American comedies ever made. And thanks to cable television and streaming services where these movies are constantly featured and easily accessible, they’re as popular now as they’ve ever been. (Internet meme-culture also plays a key role in this with some of the most used and recognizable meme formats stemming from these movies; I’m specifically thinking about two of the more famous ones from Billy Madison—the bus driver scene with Chris Farley and the “I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul” bit, but there are Sandler memes galore bouncing around the Internet.)

Happy Gilmore is the best golf movie of all time for people like me who don’t give a damn about golf. And, yes, it’s better than Caddyshack and is easily one of the greatest sports comedies ever made—a feat Sandler pulled off twice during this decade. The Wedding Singer, Sandler’s first showcase of a softer, sweeter side, is a beloved romantic comedy even today, as evidenced by the sheer number of Youtube videos featuring grooms serenading their brides with the song “Grow Old With You” during their wedding day—a move that, at first, garners laughter from the audience but by the end of it, everyone in attendance is in a full-blown cry and wiping away the tears, but somehow still laughing, because that’s the power of a great rom-com.

Sandler’s biggest box office success of the 90s, Big Daddy, is the culmination of the Sandman’s growth both as a writer and actor. If the earlier part of his career saw him playing a spoiled rich kid who speaks in a high-pitched gibberish and has debates in the bubble bath over whether shampoo or conditioner is better, the end of the decade finds him delivering an impassioned and sincere speech in a courtroom about why he believes he should be the father of a 5-year old boy. It’s quite the growing up. (And there’s a case to be made that Big Daddy is the most pivotal movie in Sandler’s career, seeing as it convinced legendary filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson to cast him in Punch Drunk Love—a film that would go on to alter the trajectory of Sandler’s career, at least artistically.)

But the best movie from this time and the one where Sandler’s comedic genius is on full display is none other than The Waterboy—a film that’s personally in my top ten and is, without a doubt, the greatest sports comedy ever made. In fact, there might be less than a half-dozen comedies, period, that are funnier—Big Lebowski, This is Spinal Tap, and Step Brothers spring to mind first, and if I gave it more thought, I might be able to come up with a few more. But the point is, it’s up there, and yet it’s never talked about as one of the best (a common theme in Sandler’s career and the whole point of this article). The reason being, it’s criminally underrated because folks have failed to see the genius at work.

I need to pause and clarify something here: I’m not playing anything up or exaggerating anything for the sake of this article. Everything I’ve said up to now and everything that follows are my true, genuine feelings, cultivated by a lifetime love of the movies. And if you’re wondering why I felt the urge to bring everything to a screeching halt and much such a statement, it’s because I’m about to say this: Not only is The Waterboy one of the funniest movies ever made, it’s one of the most important ones, too. (Back to the plane metaphor. If before was the equivalent of the oxygen masks tumbling down, now our plane is completely nosediving, and the passengers are all looking at each other in terror, knowing they’re likely about to crash—maybe even one of them tells the other some deep, dark secret they can’t stand the thought of taking to their grave. Subsequently, it could be at this point where you, dear reader, come to the reasonable conclusion that this writer is quite the dumbass and has no idea what he’s talking about. Which is probably true. Who knows?)

The Waterboy is not only funny but important.

The Waterboy is an all-timer because…well, for starters, it’s funny as hell, which is a good quality for a comedy to have. The jokes come in bunches and never stop, and they hit hard. Even now, as I’m writing this, I can see Henry Winkler telling Sandler that “what mama don’t know, won’t hurt her,” right before pulling down his pants to reveal a Roy Orbinson tattoo on his ass. That right there is comedy, folks. And this movie is chock-full of these types of scenes that, once you see them, are forever burned into your memory. But the jokes aren’t the sole reason for this movie being an all-timer, and it has nothing to do with its importance. What sends The Waterboy over the edge into legendary territory is that even though this movie is dumb—which it very much is—it’s also wickedly smart in its design.

It’s the only movie I can think of that cuts against the tide of tired, cliched stereotypes about the South and Southerners by building the entire film around these same exact tired, cliched stereotypes. It’s a hell of a balancing act that the movie pulls off to perfection, thanks to the masterful performance of Sandler as the film’s endearing and charming hero Bobby Boucher.

To fully appreciate the sleight of hand being pulled here, we’ve got to ask this question: When is the last time a character from the South was positioned as the hero of a film? Or, if we want to be a little more generous to Hollywood, when is the last time a character from the South was portrayed as anything other than a moronic, idiotic, slow-witted jackass whose sole purpose for being in the film is to be nothing more than fodder for the film’s cheap jokes? Now, chances are, seeing that you’re a reader of The Alabama Take and Alabama is about as Southern as Southern gets, you could probably come up with a few such examples. But given that we’ve had motion pictures in this country for over a century, a few such examples are a pretty damning indictment of Hollywood’s depictions of this region.

Too often, folks from the South are presented as uneducated, redneck, backwards hicks meant to be looked down upon and laughed at, or—and this is an even more hurtful and dangerous trope—they’re meant to be feared, presented as animalistic, violent sociopaths unfit for modern society. And while the former trope has been around for a long time and has an entire host of offenders, the latter trope can trace its roots back to one movie: Deliverance (and in this writer’s opinion, the film commits the greater cardinal sin of being utterly dull).

If you’re unfamiliar with Deliverance, the plot centers around four urbanites from Atlanta who take a trip into the deep woods of north Georgia, only to have their trip turn into a nightmare once they meet the creepy locals who live there. And after a bit of banjo playing and a couple of insults, the creepy locals proceed to rape one of the men and attempt to kill all of them because apparently, at least according to this movie, that’s exactly what creepy locals in backwoods Georgia do: They play a mean banjo and rape and murder people.

After its release, Deliverance found itself awash in both critical acclaim and commercial success. The film was nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars and was the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1972. Unfortunately, because of the runaway success and because Hollywood loves to copycat, countless films have followed in Deliverance’s footsteps over the years by perpetrating this violent Southerner stereotype. Practically any movie where a group of kids gets lost in a rural part of the country, there’s always a beat where they encounter a shady local at a gas station who, no matter what state they’re in, it could be in fucking Iowa, always has a tinge of a Southern accent. And this has become so ingrained in our storytelling that no one ever stops to think about how preposterous and hurtful all of it is.

This “violent Southerner” trope made famous by Deliverance is still used today.

Even today, when the climate is more sensitive than ever, and rightfully so, about the lack of representation and downright misrepresentation of many marginalized groups in the stories we tell—i.e., having the only Black and Brown members of the cast play criminals, portraying gay men as overly flamboyant or lesbian characters as “butch,” etc.—it seems as if no one is interested in taking up the exact just cause for poor, working-class folks from the South. Instead, they are the last group left where it’s still open season, where it’s perfectly fine to crack jokes at their expense or paint them with such a broad brush as to render them cheap caricatures rather than fleshed-out, well-rounded characters meant to elicit empathy from the audience. This is so widespread a trend with little talk of changing course that one can’t help but wonder if the people who make these films don’t hold poor, working-class Southerners in contempt.

You never get this feeling from The Waterboy, even though, on the surface, it’s engaging in these traditional Southern stereotypes like so many movies before. The difference here is that it goes about all this in such a playful, over-the-top, absurdist way that it can hardly be taken seriously. When the film is poking fun, which it does quite a bit, it never comes off as malicious or in poor taste. The jokes land with such a light touch, not unlike how you would joke with a beloved family member at the dinner table, with the comedic jabs landing just hard enough to cause both of you to double over with laughter but never hard enough to leave a bruise. It’s all in good fun.

The true genius of this movie, and the main reason why the jokes come off as lighthearted and loving rather than hurtful, is in Sandler’s work as the movie’s hero, Bobby Boucher. I say genius because it’s through the lovable Bobby Boucher that all these Southern stereotypes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in popular culture get flipped on their head throughout the movie’s breezy 90-minute runtime. Bobby is uneducated and slow-witted—one of the tried and true stereotypes—but in no way is he dumb. In fact, once Bobby removes himself from the over-bearing thumb of his mama, played to perfection by the wonderful Kathy Bates, he proves to be quite the fast learner, even going so far as passing a high-school equivalency exam with only a few days worth of study.

And this idea of the backwoods Southerner being a violent, sociopathic person meant to be feared and kept away from polite society gets flipped upside down, too. Bobby is as sweet as the day is long, and despite the constant brow-beating from his mama that everyone and everything is the devil, he refuses to believe it. This is best evidenced by his relationship with Vicki Vallencourt, Bobby’s love interest who’s no stranger to the law. And the violent tendencies Bobby has, spurred on by years of bullying, manage to get channeled into a positive outlet, with Bobby taking his anger out on opposing quarterbacks on the field. And it’s this anger, or what Coach Kline dubs “tackling fuel,” that leads to Bobby’s star-making play on the field, which in turn causes him to be heralded a hero by the same community that once ostracized him for being odd and strange.

Sandler’s portrayal of Bobby Boucher runs against the tide of hurtful Southern stereotypes.

Unlike Deliverance, where the violent nature of the locals is seen as justification for being boxed out of society, it’s precisely Bobby’s violent nature, albeit channeled in a positive way, which leads to his welcoming inclusion as the savior of the community. He shows up at halftime of the Bourbon Bowl to save the day, and in the end, thousands of screaming fans are chanting his name as he’s carried off the field. It’s cheesy and predictable, but dammit if it doesn’t all work to perfection.

If you’re one to think the subversion of these tired, old Southern stereotypes is merely accidental on the part of the movie, and I’m putting too much stock and/or reading too much into something inherently silly as The Waterboy, I’d politely ask you to reconsider. The fact that the movie centers its entire narrative around Bobby being 1) an outsider, 2) uneducated, and 3) prone to violence, all traits which have become synonymous with harmful depictions of Southerners in movies, is all too intentional a design to be coincidental. After all, the framework of an unlikely hero emerging to save the day is nothing new. It’s well-trodden territory that goes all the way back to the Bible. However, the magic in any story is how you fill in all the details, which colors you decide to use to paint inside the lines of whatever framework you’ve chosen. And with an endless choice of colors at your fingertips, choosing to create an uneducated, violent protagonist who winds up becoming the hero of a college football team—and a college graduate in the process—and setting the whole thing in the deep South lends itself to the argument that the genius of it all is intentional. It’s simply too many nuts for one blind squirrel to find.

Look, I get it. The Sandler comedies from back in the day might not be your cup of tea. They’re broad, ridiculous, and formulaic, and at times the humor can be described as juvenile at best—a criticism that can sadly still be levied at the Sandler comedies of today. I’ve given my reason why I think they’re still pretty great despite all this. But, of course, art is entirely subjective, and there are no hard and fast truths. So if you’re not a fan of these movies, I understand. However, what can’t be disputed or argued is just how influential these movies and Sandler in particular ended up becoming.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers, I Love You Man, Elf, and practically any other hit comedy from the 2000s and beyond all owe a debt of gratitude to Sandler. In some ways, be it either a little or a lot, they all took cues from his work. Even the mega-hit Bridemaids is, at its core, a gender-swapped traditional Sandler vehicle, where the main character, played by Kristen Wig, finds her life crumbling around her due to her refusal to grow up. It’s a slight twist on the manchild sub-genre of American comedy that Sandler rode to super-stardom. And while he can’t be credited with inventing this sub-genre, he’s undoubtedly its best and most successful practitioner.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that while the American comedies post-Sandler’s heyday are, no doubt, influenced by his work, the comedy genre as a whole has shifted away from his style of funny. The audience’s comedic antenna has moved from the broad to the grounded, from the absurd and childish to the slick, specific, and sophisticated. That’s not to say the comedies from this millennium are high-brow, artsy-fartsy fare. Pineapple Express, while a fantastic movie, is still quite silly. But when compared to its comedic counterparts from the 90s—and not just the Sandler movies that dominated the decade but other hits like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and The Nutty Professor, to name a few—Pineapple Express feels wildly different. (I’m using this movie as an example, but there are quite a few post-2005 that could be used for reasons we’ll hit on in a bit.)

Rather than explain the difference, it might be best to show you what I’m talking about, so let’s look at two clips from two of the most well-known comedies of the last 30 years.

Placed back to back like this, the differences practically leap off the screen, the biggest being the specificity of where the jokes are coming from (there’s also a difference in the filmmaking being utilized here—everything from the cinematography to the set design is incredibly heightened, which is where the sophistication comes into play). In the There’s Something About Mary clip, which is the movie’s most famous scene so it makes for a perfect example, you can watch the entire scene on mute and not miss a single joke. That’s because the jokes are physical in nature—a signature staple of the broad American comedy. Cameron Diaz confuses Ben Stiller’s semen for hair gel, she puts it in her hair, and boom—the laughs come from the reveal shot of her hair sticking straight up. Not a single line of dialogue is essential or funny because that isn’t the joke.

Now compare that to the Pineapple Express clip. First, if you were to watch this scene on mute, you’d miss half the jokes. You’d miss Franco’s nonsensical “apex of the vortex” description of the joint. You’d miss his surprising knowledge of the history of civil engineering. And you’d miss his pitch-perfect delivery of the line “I can’t even light this thing on my own.” Of course, you’d still catch them coughing up a storm and Seth Rogen’s little robot dance, but I don’t know if all that would hit the same had you missed everything that happened before. And it’s this mashup of the broad with the specific that became the calling card of the man who took the comedy reigns after Sandler and transformed the genre—Judd Apatow.

If you don’t know who Judd Apatow is, that likely means you’ve been living under a rock, or you’ve just woken up from a two decades-plus coma (if that’s the case, welcome back—shit’s been pretty wild since you’ve been gone). In short, any movie that’s made you laugh since 2005, chances are Apatow had some part to play in it, either as a writer, director, producer, or all three. And if you wanted to nail down a precise moment in time when Apatow killed the 90s style of comedy, look no further than the mega popularity of 2005’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin takes the manchild comedy of Sandler and elevates it, bringing it out of the juvenile and into the realm of adulthood. Unlike in Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore or The Waterboy, no one here is playing a “character,” in the sense that they’re playing a cartoon version of a human being. Instead, everyone in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, even down to the titular character, a literal middle-aged virgin, resembles a real person. I’d venture to guess we all know someone like Andy—a sort of nerdy, socially awkward hermit with a non-existent romantic life who needs to be coaxed into putting themselves out there. However, I highly doubt anyone knows anybody who resembles the characters that populate movies like The Waterboy or Dumb and Dumber or Austin Powers or Ace Ventura, or any of the other broad comedies of the 90s that were incredibly popular at the time.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin was the death nail for the 90s broad comedy.

By the way, I’m not suggesting these movies aren’t funny. I love Dumb and Dumber the same as everyone else. I’m simply suggesting it’s impossible to make these movies precisely the same way today and have them become as big as they were during the 90s. The comedy landscape has changed significantly. This is why the sequels to Dumb and Dumber and The Anchorman, two relics of a comedy past whose sequels were made in the same vein as the originals, failed to capture the same magic as their predecessors. And it’s for this exact reason why the recent Sandler comedies have failed, too. He’s still operating comedically like it’s 1998.

Like any other art form, comedy grows and evolves. Even though the terrain might be different and audiences have moved away from the style of comedy that made Sandler famous, his influence is still felt today. All great artists stand on the shoulders of those who came before. And just like how Sandler stood on the shoulders of people like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy who came before him, folks like Apatow, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Seth Rogen, Johan Hill, and Kevin Hart are all able to reach a little higher because they’re standing on the shoulders of Sandler. He’s a true titan. And when we’re evaluating a person’s all-time greatness, the mark they left on the art weighs heavily.

But Sandler’s comedies by themselves aren’t enough to make a case for him being an all-time acting great. If we were talking about strictly comedic actors, those five comedies from the 90s coupled with the few decent ones that followed in later decades would be plenty to place him on the Mount Rushmore of American comedy. But in terms of great actors, regardless of genre, we’ve still got a little more work to do before we get there. And in order to get there, we need to turn to the four movies mentioned at the very beginning of this article—Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories, Uncut Gems, and Hustle—which if you haven’t seen them all, I strongly urge you to stop here and go watch them before continuing. The entire crux of my argument hinges on these four films, and rather than simply taking my word for it, you should see them for yourself, so there’s a common base to work from. So go watch them and come back (or if you’ve seen them once before, please continue on).

Alright, so it’s time for another thought experiment. Suppose for a second that the only four films on Sandler’s resume were the four you just watched (or have seen before)—Punch Drunk, Meyerowitz, Uncut Gems, and Hustle. Not only that, let’s imagine these four films are all the work he’s ever done, meaning the public’s relationship with Sandler exists solely through these films. So there’s no SNL, no standup career, no comedy albums, no other films—nothing else whatsoever to judge him against.

Given this scenario, do you think the conversation surrounding Sandler’s acting ability, specifically the critical discussion surrounding it, would be drastically different or the same as it is today? Would Sandler be talked about as an occasionally good, maybe even great, actor, or would he be in the discussion as one of the absolute best working today? With only these four films to judge, would he still land at 107th place on a list of Best Living American Actors or somewhere higher?

If you’re being honest here, then you know the answer. If it was only these four films, the talk around Sandler would be so wildly different it would make your head spin. Every major publication would be profusely praising him and writing article after article speculating his next move. Every hotshot director would be lining up to work with him; and chances are, one of these performances would have already netted him an Oscar.

So, considering Sandler does have these four masterful performances under his belt, and he just so happens to also be a titan of American comedy that influenced literally everything that came after him, can someone please explain to me why the hell we aren’t more impressed with this man? Despite the massive growth in ability and the current run he’s on—Meyerowitz, Gems, and Hustle have all come out in the last five years—why is Sandler still seen as the bumbling idiot debating the merits of shampoo or conditioner in a bubble bath? The answer: It boils down to human nature.

First impressions are incredibly powerful, and as much as we’d like to tell ourselves this isn’t the case, how you’re seen from the get-go is likely how you’ll always be seen, despite your best efforts to change it. Unfair as it is, you get placed into a box from the start, and often that box ends up becoming a kind of prison you can never escape. For Sandler, his box—or prison—is as the funnyman. He’s the guy that does the funny voices and lashes out in anger. He’s the one that does the funny dances and acts like a child. He’s the Waterboy, for God’s sake. He can’t be taken seriously as an artist because…well because he’s the fucking Waterboy.

Ultimately, this thinking is the root cause for Sandler’s Oscar snub in 2020. It wasn’t that he wasn’t deserving. It’s that he didn’t belong. There are artists, and there are guys like Sandler. And the two shall never mix.

But here’s the thing: Sandler is an artist and one of the best actors working today, and he does belong at the top, among the rarefied air we reserve for the greats of the art form. Because on a sheer talent for talent basis, he’s as good, if not better, than most anyone else. And his work in the films discussed here is as impressive a filmography as any actor in the last 40 years.

Let me be crystal clear: I’m not suggesting Sandler is the greatest actor ever or even the best actor alive today. However, what I am suggesting is that whomever you place in that latter category, let’s say for the sake of argument, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis—the gap between Lewis and Sandler isn’t a Grand Canyon-sized chasm as some out there would have you believe; it’s a pothole. And not even a major one that would cause a flat or damage your car. If anything, it’d give you just enough of a jolt to make you spill your coffee on the way to work. In other words, that gap is small.

Could Sandler have played Abraham Lincoln or Daniel Plainview—two legendary Daniel Day-Lewis performances? Absolutely not. But could Lewis have matched Sandler’s strange comedic brilliance in Punch Drunk Love? Could he have played Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems with the same frenetic energy and playfulness that Sandler brought to the role? Could he have floated through The Meyerowitz Stories with the same level of effortless comedy that Sandler did? Could he have even been in Hustle? Does ol’ Daniel have a jump shot like Sandler’s? Having a wet-ass jumper was probably a prerequisite for the role, and despite Lewis’ brilliant acting chops, you can’t fake being an athlete. You either are or you aren’t. (And in case you were wondering, the answers to the previous questions are no, hell no, and hell naw, in that order.)

But perhaps the biggest thing working against Sandler in terms of people fully appreciating just how good he is, aside from the previously mentioned power of first impressions, is that we—meaning the movie-going public—have fallen victim to a great con. We’ve been lied to.

We’ve all come to believe that the only kind of great acting is the kind of acting that’s visible. Meaning that, in some way, the audience has to recognize that the actor on-screen is really going for it—a phrase that’s become so commonly used we all know what it means and what it looks like. It’s the actor pulling off a convincing accent or undergoing some drastic physical transformation to play a role. It’s the actor nailing their impression of a famous person or historical figure, as is most often the case in these “Oscar-bait” movies, which over the years became a genre in and of itself. Or it’s the actor coming to the table with an incredibly specific or bombastic performance.

To get specific, it’s Heath Ledger as The Joker or Daniel Day as Lincoln or Denzel Washington as Det. Alonzo Harris in Training Day, to name a few.

And listen, I’m not saying these types of performances aren’t worthy of the attention or praise, and that’s certainly not the case for the three I specifically mentioned. With those, you’re talking about three of the greatest performances ever put on film. I’m simply saying these aren’t the only types or styles of acting that should be considered great. Subdued, nuanced, quiet, quirky, absurd, funny, nonsensical—these types and styles deserve just as much praise and recognition when done well. But they are often overlooked and under-appreciated for the sake of rewarding an actor who lost a ton of weight or poured over copious amounts of film reels and journals to bring some historical figure to life on-screen.

And this issue of visibility, along with everything else I’ve mentioned in this article, has worked against Sandler. Because when Sandler is at his best, he actually isn’t doing much in front of the camera. His acting looks effortless at a time when the actor’s visible effort is the thing that’s being praised. Take his performance in Punch Drunk Love, for example—it’s so quiet and reserved that it causes you to lean forward to take it in. And the same can be said for his work in The Meyerowitz Stories and Hustle, with Sandler not doing much of anything and yet somehow still commanding every second of your attention. Even in Uncut Gems, Sandler is subdued, which doesn’t seem like a word you would use to describe any part of Gems, but considering how loud and busy and vibrant a frequency the rest of the movie is vibrating on, he shows an impressive amount restraint that still winds up sucking you in. In a lot of ways, he’s not unlike a virtuosic jazz musician delivering a masterful performance that’s grabbed the audience by the throat despite the fact he hasn’t moved a single inch on the stage.

But audiences don’t respond to jazz anymore. It seems as if we’ve become bored by how effortless someone can make greatness look, and instead, we’ve taken to responding best when we feel as if the greatness we’re witnessing took tremendous effort to achieve. Like a common core math problem, we gotta see the work. The obvious irony here is that all greatness, regardless of the medium or how it looks to the viewer, takes tremendous effort, sacrifice, and literal years of someone’s life to achieve. It reminds me of the famous Picasso napkin story, which goes something like this.

The great artist Pablo Picasso is sitting in a restaurant when a woman approaches, asking him to scribble something on a napkin for her—an impromptu piece of art, if you will. Picasso happily agrees, moving his pencil swiftly and decisively across the napkin with the skill and mastery only a great artist can muster. He finishes quickly, sets his pencil down, and holds the napkin out for the woman to take. She reaches for it, but right before she grabs it, Picasso pulls it back. He looks at her and says, “That will be $10,000.” The woman looks at him, stunned out her mind.

“But you did that in thirty seconds,” she says.

“No,” he says. “It has taken me forty years to do that.”

We don’t want it to look effortless. We want it to look difficult because we want to feel as if our precious time has been earned. We want to see the big swings and the dramatic weight loss and the great attention to detail taken in historical performances because it validates how we’ve chosen to spend our time and attention. And it’s this kind of thinking that’s worked against Sandler throughout his career, because when Sandler is firing on all cylinders, when he’s really cooking with gas, it all looks so damn easy.

Why? Because he’s one of the best to ever step foot in front of a camera.

So here comes the big question: Where would I personally rank Sandler, not only among actors working today but of all time? With the caveat being this is just my opinion, and you’re free to disagree completely, I’d put Sandler right outside the top ten of actors working today, just barely. Of course, guys like DiCaprio and Hanks and Denzel are ahead of him, but rather than list out my entire top ten, let me give you some high-profile names I’d put Sandler ahead of.

I’d put Sandler in front of Robert Downy Jr, quite frankly by a mile. I’d put him in front of Samuel L. Jackson. I’d put him in front of Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith, Michael Keaton, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth (the Sandman easily has every Chris in Hollywood beat), Johnny Deep, Edward Norton, John Malkovich…And I could keep going, but I think that’s enough for you to get my point. All those names I mentioned are considered, at large, to be far more talented than Adam Sandler, and I simply don’t see it.

And in terms of all-time…he’s in the top 100. Which may sound like he’s far down there, but considering the whole thing that kicked this off was a list that put him at 107th place of just Best Living American Actors, being within the top 100 is one hell of an accomplishment. And once you consider the thousands upon thousands of faces that have graced the big screen over a century’s worth of time, being one of the 100 best is an honor and one that I believe is well-deserved.

The best part of all this: Sandler still has time to pad the resume. He’s only 55 years old, which is still well within his prime for an actor. You could even argue this is when good roles start coming around. And if he manages to put a few more classics under his belt—which, if I was a betting man, I’d take that bet every day of the week and twice on Sunday—the conversation around him will change. Him being just good will turn into him being great, which will turn into him being legendary, which’ll turn into him being one of the best to ever do it.

And hopefully, when that becomes the overwhelming consensus as it should, I’ll still be around to say I told you so.

1 comment on “Adam Sandler isn’t just good. He’s one of the best to ever do it.

  1. Pingback: Taking It Down 126: MCU Casting Ideas, Adam Sandler as a Great, and the Movie Nope

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