The Atonement of Adam Sandler

We look at the work of Adam Sandler and its public reception and ask could Punch Drunk Love be the atonement of Adam Sandler?

The sins of Adam Sandler are many, and mostly cinematic. While this is no place to discuss his personal life, his films are almost universally terrible, to the point of cliché. Everybody knows that Adam Sandler is terrible, but also very very successful. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we take a look at the atonement of Adam Sandler.

adam sandler by Franz Richter 2012

His Happy Madison production company (responsible for laying such brownage as Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Click, The House Bunny and Just Go With It) is able to turn a huge profit due to massive advertising campaigns and lowest common denominator humour – for instance, Jack and Jill brought in $149,673,788 gross, more than double its budget, and was largely panned as the worst film of the year. He has become the living, breathing definition of someone who has completely, utterly, and unrepentently sold out.

But is he without talent? Some would argue that to be so successful would require some modicum of talent – whether his talent is schmoozing financiers, pitching his idea, or his enthusiasm, he repeatedly finds funding for terrible ideas, without the tax shelters employed by similar European film-makers (such as Uwe Boll). This is a fair point but it seems that inside of Adam Sandler, somewhere, there is a seriously talented dramatic actor crying to get out.

He has painted himself into a corner with his comedies and would risk alienating his audience if he were to give in completely but, for a short period in the early 2000’s, he did. Yes, while his production company was making The Hot Chick, Sandler was starring in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s dark romantic comedy/drama Punch Drunk Love.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, who owns a novelty toilet plunger company. He suffers at the hands of overbearing sisters and suffers from intermittent spells of intense emotional outbursts. After witnessing an odd car accident, he rescues a harmonium from the street. The film continues from there to include phone sex gangsters, large amounts of pudding and his love interest Lena Leonard, played by Emily Watson.

The film is directed with PT Anderson’s usual flair (other films in his canon include Magnolia and There Will Be Blood), and he extracts from Sandler an incredibly emotional perfomance; one of a man who is constantly struggling with his emotions, and one of surprising breadth and depth. Assuming that this role wasn’t some kind of fluke, he proves that he is capable of playing darker roles with much more success than comedic roles, using that same talent for annoyance and childishness but in a completely different way, so that it becomes spite instead of snarkiness.

So why doesn’t Sandler stay with these roles? Because of the money. Punch Drunk Love didn’t make back it’s $25million budget, which is a low budget for an Adam Sandler film anyway. It’s one of the lowest grossing films in which Sandler has starred, and perhaps he sees the whole effort as a waste of time when he could just turn on the poop/gay/foreigner joke autopilot and make twice as much money as he could in a small film requiring real effort.

It could also be that this performance required PT Anderson to bring something unique out of him, rather than it being something inside of Sandler that is always trying to break out. Perhaps if Sandler had gotten close to PT Anderson instead of Rob Schneider, we’d have a whole raft of darkly emotional and deeply fulfilling movies. We can but think on what could have been.

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