Adam Sandler’s comedies no longer earn the actor much critical love, but switching to villainous roles could reinvigorate his screen career.
Adam Sandler’s biggest releases have fared badly with critics for some years now, but the actor can still reinvent his screen persona by taking on a villain role. In the mid-’90s, comedy icon Adam Sandler rose to stardom through a series of silly comedies wherein he played zany man-children with serious rage issues. The actor’s turns in comedies Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Waterboy were inspired in their silliness and won both him both critical acclaim and audience approval, but within a few years, it became clear he needed to broaden his range to keep viewers and reviewers interested.
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Later immature comedies like Little Nicky failed to impress critics who were charmed by Sandler’s earlier output, so the actor soon made the canny choice to pivot into playing likable everyman characters when his goofy routine became tired. Thanks to winning turns in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, Sandler kept critical disdain at bay for a few more years and successfully transitioned, like Steve Martin before him, from playing over-the-top comic roles to more relatable heroes without losing his mainstream popularity.
However, unlike Martin, Sandler’s output as a theoretically likable everyman wore out it’s welcome fast, and within a decade, the actor was receiving worse reviews than ever. Although he remains a consistently popular figure at the box office (save for a handful of flops) after the release of 50 First Dates, Sandler’s critical reception worsened rapidly, with many of his post-2010 roles being outright derided. However, there is still hope for Sandler’s career on-screen, as proven by his occasional pivots to more dramatic fare like his former roommate Judd Apatow’s 2009 dramedy Funny People. For years now, critics have called the actor’s comedic output tired but praised his dramatic efforts. As a result of this dichotomy, there’s no better time for Sandler – who built his career on likable every-men but has always held onto his hidden depths of rage and anxiety – to tap into his darker side.
Sandler’s Formula Is Tired
Despite the solid streaming performances of recent Sandler outings like Hubie Halloween or Murder Mystery, a cursory glance at both movie’s reviews proves Sandler’s formula of goofy family-friendly comedies has been stale for some time now. Some of Sandler’s releases over the last decade such as Jack & Jill have been received universally terrible reviews, but even the actor’s more middle-of-the-road releases have failed to recapture the charm of his early efforts, like his third Drew Barrymore collaboration Blended. Outside of the Hotel Transylvania franchise, the actor hasn’t enjoyed good reviews for his major studio comedies in over a decade and a half.
Older Actors Often Pivot To Villain Roles
From Denzel Washington in Training Day to Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher – it’s a rite of passage for aging everyman actors to take on villainous roles to broaden their horizons. Sandler is overdue a bad guy role, and the simmering rage the actor has brought to most of his performances (except the perpetually-scared Hubie Halloween) is perfectly suited to a transition to villainy. Sandler isn’t getting any younger, and the actor can always return to comedy if his attempts at darker material don’t prove successful. Sandler’s output thus far proves the actor can be an effective dramatic performer, and the simmering anger underlying most of his movie turns has never been utilized for anything but comic or, in the case of Punch-Drunk Love, tragic effect.
Washington’s Training Day reinvention of his screen persona proved effective precisely because the actor was known as a level-headed, trustworthy hero, meaning viewers were initially transfixed by his straight-talking charm. This Antoine Fuqua thriller relied on audiences siding with Washington at first and joining his smug dismissal of Ethan Hawke’s naive rookie, before pulling the rug out to show just how corrupt and amoral his detective really was. Unlike Washington or even Tom Cruise – with the latter having explored bad guy roles like icy hitman Vincent in Michael Mann’s Collateral – who had already made Eyes Wide Shut and Fallen respectively by the time they turned to villainy, Sandler had never even flirted with seriously dark roles until Uncut Gems. And speaking of the Sadfie Brothers’ 2020 crime drama, that white-knuckle cinematic anxiety attack provides further proof Sandler belongs in the rogue’s gallery of movie villains.
Uncut Gems Proved His Dramatic Potential (Again)
The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems was Sandler’s strongest dramatic turn yet, but the actor already impressed years earlier with both Funny People (a flawed film that he was the strongest part of) and Punch-Drunk Love, a great film whose success relied almost entirely on his performance. Sandler was snubbed by the Oscars for Uncut Gems, but the decision to play the movie’s antihero as an unrepentantly unpleasant figure who nonetheless proved magnetizing for audiences felt like a total reinvention for the actor. What made Uncut Gems even more impressive than the earlier dramas that the actor was praised for was Sandler’s success in making a reprehensible protagonist not only watchable but engaging. In any other film, Howard would be the sleazy villain – and that’s exactly the sort of movie Sandler needs to be making.
The Safdie Brothers drama almost went as far as casting Sandler as a villain, but the actor can and should now commit to playing a straight-up bad guy. The actor is guaranteed another hit with the upcoming Hotel Transylvania 4, with the animated family comedy-horror series being Sandler’s most successful movies of his career. This means that he has the creative freedom to pursue riskier roles without worrying about box office receipts in the long run, but the critical acclaim that Sandler once enjoyed has dried up over the last decade and a half with good reason. As such, if Adam Sandler wants to win back the crowd, the clearest path to achieving this is by reinventing himself as a villain, much like he once revamped his loudmouth man child persona into a charming everyman. After decades spent honing his onscreen comic persona, it’s now time for the veteran actor to explore his darker side a little.
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