The term “genius” is thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it has lost all meaning. Earlier, it was reserved for historical visionaries like Vincent can Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla among many other pioneers who have been rediscovered and resurrected as icons. On the flip side, there are people today who consider artists like Damien Hirst to be on the same list and then are celebrities like Kanye West who don’t wait for the “misunderstood genius” label, they grab it for themselves and use it as a marketing tool.
Adam Sandler, for one, rarely gets hit with this tag except for the rare anomalies in his career like his stunning performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 revision of the rom-com genre Punch-Drunk Love as well as the frenetic 2019 thriller Uncut Gems. Most critics harbour a visceral hatred for Sandler because they think he is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood – a soulless industry that manufactures cheap entertainment instead of creating art. However, even they had to begrudgingly admit that Sandler at least deserved a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar for Uncut Gems.
For a long time, Sandler has had to navigate his way through these accusations of acting in “cheesy comedies” which always come back to haunt him as well as his legacy. Despite all the negativity that has followed him throughout his career, Sandler maintains: “I do love the films I’ve done in the past. I work hard in my movies and my friends work hard and we’re trying to make people laugh and I’m very proud of that.” Yes, his films have mostly been enormously profitable and have contributed to his status as one of the richest actors in Hollywood. That’s the major criticism that Sandler has always faced, urging people to dismiss him as a neo-alchemist who manages to offer trash to the audience and get gold in return.
Of course, some critics have argued that Sandler has merit by citing Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems but it is imperative to look beyond those universally acclaimed works in his extensive filmography. For those who write Sandler off as a cash-grabbing business executive, now is the time to revisit some of his older films. Once you get past the superficial humour with which the surfaces are laced, they transform into rather poignant meditations on larger questions about existentialism and modernity.
If you’re wondering whether I am talking about undiscovered masterpieces that were never released to the public, I am not. To start with, let’s take a look at Tom McCarthy’s critically butchered comedy-drama The Cobbler. Sandler stars a cobbler who inherited his father’s shoe-repair shop but does not want to continue in the same profession until he discovers a magical machine that lets him take on the physical appearances of other people by wearing their shoes.
Sandler’s performance is fantastic, exuding an overwhelming sense of existential frustration and ennui mixed with spurts of fascination for magical realism. Not just that, The Cobbler is actually a reflection on the academic theories of psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan who argued that the mythology of empathy is perniciously illusory because it is categorically impossible to experience life through someone else’s eyes.
Sandler hasn’t just experimented with psychoanalytical discourse but religious schools as well, most notably in his terrifyingly effective sci-fi drama Click. He plays the role of an ambitious architect, struggling to find a balance between his professional and personal life. On a late-night trip to Bed Bath & Beyond, Sandler comes across an AI-powered remote that lets him skip through the unwanted experiences in his life.
Thanks to the algorithm, the remote starts automatically skipping almost everything until he has nothing left except an enormous amount of wealth which signifies absolutely nothing. According to Buddhist teachings, life is suffering and that is what Click explores. By combining pointed critiques of commercialism and escapism, Click acts as a self-reflexive investigation of the philosophical consequences of a life without suffering. In such a case, even happiness loses its value without its proper antithesis.
Contrary to the popular belief that Sandler exclusively acts in shallow projects (he definitely has at times), there are several examples of deeply interesting works in his oeuvre. His ability to conduct a brilliant self-parody in Judd Apatow’s 2009 magnum opus Funny People is simply riveting, giving us a glimpse into the all-encompassing existential dread of a widely celebrated comedian who has been isolated in his own ivory tower and is forced to confront his past mistakes as well as his mortality.
Even in his less serious projects like Happy Gilmore, Sandler adds nuance to the comedy that might just have been facile vehicles for debased humour without his presence. Due to Sandler’s layered performance as an aspiring hockey player who discovers that he is good at golf, Happy Gilmore becomes something more than a sports comedy. Like Masaaki Yuasa’s seminal masterpiece Ping Pong the Animation, Happy Gilmore asks larger and meaningful questions about the completely randomised distribution of talent through genetic traits and the effect it has on the viability of the common man’s dreams of success.
In the lead-up to the Oscar season after the release of Uncut Gems, Sandler promised: “If I don’t get it, I’m going to fucking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay. That’s how I get them.” As was predicted, Sandler didn’t get it and kept his promise of making a terrible Netflix comedy (Hubie Halloween) for which he earned a Worst Actor nomination at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
While Sandler might revel in the financial output of making “bad films” after being routinely denounced by critics, there is a good chance that scholars of the future will rediscover his films — especially the ones that have been dismissed as terrible and study them as cultural artefacts. I can imagine them coming to the remarkable conclusion that Adam Sandler was the man who launched psychoanalytical, philosophical and religious attacks at the American Dream but ended up becoming its poster child, proving that he was right all along.
After witnessing the magic of Sandler’s masterpieces, they will probably interpret his “cheesy comedies” as social experiments designed to prove his elaborate thesis about the psychological programming of the audience due to the sinister machinations of modern media consumption practices. I am completely convinced that Sandler used to laugh every time one of these social experiments like Grown Ups racked up unimaginable profits but that amusement is slowly turning into rage and disappointment.
If Sandler eventually slips into insanity like van Gogh, there is a good chance that he will produce something that will shut his critics up once and for all. I, for one, can’t believe that The Cobbler hasn’t done that already.