Adam Sandler may have just had one of the worst weeks that any actor has ever had at the Toronto Film Festival, as two of his star vehicles—Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children and Thomas McCarthy’s The Cobbler—were hammered by critics for being sexist, racist, and painfully out of touch. Sandler bears little to no responsibility for how either movie turned out, and for all I know, he doesn’t really care that they were savaged. Still, it’s becoming something of a pattern for Sandler to try and stretch his acting muscles in more “serious” movies that turn out to be misfires, before retreating to lackadaisical, low-ambition slapstick comedies. In the comments on Scott Tobias’ Day 7 TIFF coverage, The Dissolve readers struggled to understand Sandler’s career choices.
Bielsa Widow: “Sandler’s idea of a dramatic performance seems to be playing a milquetoast. The only success he’s found was with Paul Thomas Anderson, who knew to tap into Sandler’s irate persona. But then he’s PTA.”
Michael G: “Sandler was going to be The Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds, but decided to do Funny People instead. I can see why, too. Basterds is a great movie, but that part would’ve just been colorful stunt casting, as opposed to a dramatic lead. Still, had he played that part, Tarantino probably would have tapped into the mean-spirited anger of the Sandler persona, previously underutilized for dramatic effect. A lot of comedians and comic actors, when they break type and go dramatic, think they have to do a complete 180 and be quiet and mumbly and low-key, but that kind of thinking seems wrong to me. If a director wants to get Will Ferrell to a do a dramatic role, why would he not want to take advantage of Ferrell’s energy and off-kilter character interpretation? Why go mellow when you can take those comedic tools and just point them in a different direction? There are exceptions, of course, but I think that’s generally the case.”
Wolverine DoppelShane: “Sandler was also almost the cab driver in Collateral, which would have certainly lent a different energy to that film.”
JoelBarish: “I think Gondry is one director who nailed this with Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine. Carrey still does the mopey, quiet thing, but he also gets his more high-energy moments and gets to do things like play his younger self in a broad, but realistic manner.”
Wolfman Jew: “But in that case Carrey had an out. His problem is basically what Michael G is mentioning—that ‘comedy = loud, drama = quiet’ idea—just taken to a constant and irritating extreme.”
I fully endorse this theory that comedians shouldn’t try so hard to tone down their comic persona when they’re taking on a dramatic role. When Robin Williams died, I thought back on all the years he spent fighting to be taken seriously as an actor, when to my mind some of his best early performances—Popeye, The World According To Garp, the TV movie Seize The Day—blended his quick wit with his natural gift for playing anxious characters. I think one of the best comics at playing drama is Albert Brooks, and the reason is that there’s not a tremendous amount of difference between Brooks in Defending Your Life and Brooks in Out Of Sight.
The Sandler situation is weird, though, because he has so many creative friends who are good at blending comedy and drama. (As noted above, two of those friends, P.T. Anderson and Judd Apatow, guided him to his two best non-comedy performances.) I root for Sandler, because he has such a unique screen presence, at once unapologetically silly and a little sad. But both his taste level and his work ethic have been suspect over the past decade or so; and since he doesn’t need the money, I’d just as soon Sandler rest on his laurels than keep coasting through lazy comedies and looking awkward in dramas.
Or better yet, you know what I’d really like to see? I’d like to see Sandler fully re-embrace his goofy side, and make whatever the 50-year-old’s equivalent of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore would be. No more mumbly rom-coms or midlife crisis comedies, and no more movies that have Sandler in a grotesque costume, doing a weird voice for 90 minutes. Just loopy fun, guided by a filmmaker like Adam McKay or Jody Hill, who knows how to frame a comedian’s gifts.
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