Out of all the people rolling in and out of “Saturday Night Live” in the ’90s, it wasn’t immediately obvious that Adam Sandler would be the break-out of the bunch. In an infamous 1995 profile of the show in New York, Sandler didn’t come off noticeably worse than the other cast members, but he was portrayed as lazy, just waiting for the writing meetings to be over so that he could get his drink on. Since then, though, he’s displayed nothing if not a Murdoch-ian business acumen for gambiting low stakes against high returns.
Critics of his SNL time — where, if nothing else, he gave the world Opera Man — would complain that he didn’t have much range, but that was nothing compared to the idiot’s delight streak (“Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore” and the rest), in which Sandler rode his success to unexpected heights.
Sandler’s comic persona is weirder and more spikily unlikeable than his frequently flat delivery would suggest. Punctuated by sudden bursts of uncontrollable anger, his regressive approach to adult life suggests not just childishness but something more sinister, a rage which conceals itself under puckishness. He beats the crap out of those who mess with the weak and rages against the machine, traits P.T. Anderson would pick up on and amplify in “Punch Drunk Love.”
Sandler seemed suddenly addicted to the idea that he, too, could go one for him and one for them: two years later he gave an excellent straight performance in “Spanglish” (though no one seemed to notice, being too busy hating the movie), went “full retard” for “Reign O’er Me” (ditto, though substitute “indifference” for “hate”) and then deconstructed his entire persona with “Funny People.”
No one can blame the man, then, for having taken four leaps for the brass ring and failed financially every time. His brand has, otherwise, proven surprisingly durable: Fandango sent out a release today saying that advance sales for “Grown Ups” (aka, “Anything But What This Title Normally Means”) are twice those of “Knight & Day.” Evidently, a consistently childish persona — the career equivalent of playing Robin Williams’ “Jack” every time for 15 years straight — wears a little bit better than the cool patina.
But it’s regrettable — out of the five grown-ups here, Sandler has the most range and potential. No one expects greatness from Kevin James or thespianism from Chris Rock; as for Rob Schneider, he’s to be congratulated on still having a career. (The unmatchably snide David Spade will always have a place in my heart, though why anyone ever thought he could be a one-man comic star is beyond me.)
Sandler’s career is littered with what-ifs, like: what if it was him and not Jamie Foxx in “Collateral”? (Answer: Sandler might’ve actually had a hit dramatic role.) Instead, it’s 15 years later and it’s 1995 all over again. Forget “MacGruber”: “Grown Ups” is the real SNL movie of the year. So it goes.
[Photos: “Saturday Night Live,” NBC, 1975-present; “Spanglish,” Columbia, 2004]