By Nellie Killian in the November-December 2019 Issue
People love to hate Adam Sandler as much as they love to love him. His deals with Netflix seem to have kicked this tendency into overdrive. He’s currently one movie into his second four-picture deal with them—a partnership that, since 2015, has produced five features (average Rotten Tomatoes rating: 22 percent) and the standup special Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh (2018). The hack line is that he’s phoning it in for an obscene amount of money, and this objection seems to be as much about the form as the content. He’s still making broad, shaggy comedies, often with goofy premises (in The Do-Over, estranged high school friends fake their own deaths) and preposterous twists (the Do-Over friends end up curing cancer).
I eagerly awaited seeing Sandler and Jennifer Aniston lead an Agatha Christie riff in Murder Mystery, and when a friend told me that The Week Of had a humanism reminiscent of Jean Renoir, it sounded slightly hyperbolic, but intriguing. If the Netflix films were taken more seriously, The Week Of would have been heralded as the exciting feature directorial debut of Robert Smigel (creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and co-screenwriter of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). It’s a gaspingly funny, disarmingly sweet ensemble comedy that includes a Greek chorus of hard-of-hearing aunties, an extended storyline about stolen valor, and a reverse heist that involves getting a large number of live bats into City Hall. Smigel orchestrates a cast of dozens (including Chris Rock, Steve Buscemi, and Rachel Dratch), trusting his performers to bring a grounding humanity to their characters, however ridiculous, and avoiding the bane of so much contemporary comedy: overwriting. Sandler plays it straight as Kenny Lustig, a loving, beleaguered patriarch cheerfully masking the strain of constant assaults on his pride and his pocketbook in the run-up to his daughter’s wedding.
Sandler never shies away from mixing off-color humor with surprising tenderness. The result would be mawkish in a less capable actor’s hands, but Sandler brings the same craft to these Netflix films as he does to his work with P.T. Anderson or Noah Baumbach. In Sandy Wexler he plays a man with paralyzing insecurity and fear of rejection who honks when he laughs, and Sandler telegraphs Sandy’s loneliness as easily as he honks at his own jokes. There is an utter lack of pretension to all of his work: he plays the most outlandish characters honestly, and there is never a whiff of the try-hard self-seriousness that sometimes afflicts comedians attempting to tackle drama.
If Sandler’s fallen off your radar, or you never got the appeal in the first place, 100% Fresh is a good place to start. In one of the loosest comedy specials I’ve seen in years, his material is largely about the slide into middle age, but his vibe remains boyish, guilelessly flitting from songs about his daughters, “UFC Ears,” and stanky Ubers, to jokes about dick-measuring ghosts, to musical tributes to his late friend Chris Farley and his wife Jackie. Sandler is absurd and sweetly sentimental by turns. And on top of all that, he seems to be having such a good time.