HIGHER CULTURE: Reconsidering Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems" (2019). Screengrab credit: Netflix/A24 Films

Essential Viewing

It’s funny when the most run-of-the-mill item in your incoming emails sparks thinking about something you forgot was important to you.

That’s exactly what happened to me recently, while trying to throw away the newsletters piling up in my inbox from various news sources, when I happened to see a story about actor/comedian/writer/producer Adam Sandler.

He’s someone I believe doesn’t get enough credit for how talented he is. (In advance, I know I’m going to get a certain amount of guff for writing about “Sandler movies” in a column called Higher Culture. But I digress.)

According to an entertainment section article by Fox News, Adam Sandler recently appeared as a guest on the “Little Gold Men” podcast, but not to promote any project in particular. A couple of intriguing things came up, though; one was that he is working on a new project with the Safdie brothers. More on that later.

Now, Sandler has worked with the Safdies before, on a movie you’ve likely never heard of called “Uncut Gems” (2019); the article also mentions 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” one of Sandler’s most underappreciated, dramatic/comedic roles, and it also references his most recent film for the Netflix streaming service, “Hustle” (2022).

My hope, in talking about these three movies, is that even one reader takes a chance on (gasp!) a movie made since 2000, or looks at this actor’s films with new eyes. Because I think many people may have really missed out on some great movies–and what this guy can do. Let’s start with something from 2022, and work our way backward, okay? If you want more info on any of the movies, just click on the IMDb link on each title. Note that everything below is 100 percent spoiler-free.


Based on real-life events of both NBA talent scouts and prospective rookie ballplayers, this movie stars Sandler as a scout for a fictional Boston Celtics organization, and co-stars former NBA player-turned-actor Juan Alberto “Juancho” Hernangómez as one of the foreign prospects the scout wants the Celtics to sign.

But, “Hustle” is not a movie about professional basketball; it’s a complex movie for people who don’t even like or watch professional basketball. That’s because it’s about much more than the process behind young men playing a kids’ game for big money; it’s about the value of a human soul, true friendship, and how adults define the found family we connect with in the world. It’s also about knowing yourself and doing what’s right, even if that means you’re not considered “cool.” All of that might sound like a moral in search of a movie, but it isn’t. Stick with me here. It has several laugh-out-loud moments in it, too.

As far as the “R” rating goes, there is some coarse language, but nothing your Boomer mom can’t tolerate. Mine enjoyed the movie, despite the occassional presence of profanity.

For what it’s worth, watching “Hustle” is partly what convinced me to renew a Netflix membership that lapsed a few years back. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Uncut Gems

While including this entry, I realize I’ll might undermine something else I wrote recently for VIP, about movies that come out in the fall/winter as a part of movie studios’ slavish attempt to gain critical buzz for titles leading up to the spring awards season. “Uncut Gems” enjoyed only the most limited of theatrical releases (which was where I first saw it in November ’19), then released on Netflix’s platform. But you can’t blame the producers or the theaters for that; this movie–whether by design or nature–wasn’t a sure thing to reach a wide general audience.

“Gems” co-stars virtual unknown actor Julia Fox and Idina Menzel (yes, the one from “Frozen”), but the co-star who almost steals the movie from Sandler is Celtics player Kevin Garnett, who plays himself here. Sandler plays a high-end jewelery dealer who caters to celebrities and niche gem collectors, with a dangerous taste for high-stakes sports betting–and on top of that, juggling a rocky marriage, an affair, and loans to unsavory people who might kill you for the wrong kind of look.

As the Coen brothers (“Fargo”; “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) did before them, Josh and Benny Safdie have quietly managed to build an indie film aesthetic across a clutch of feature films, all in the thriller/drama genre. But no one can pigeonhole movies like “Good Time” and “Heaven Knows What” as Hitchcock or Tarantino retreads. This movie, especially, is very funny in parts, which the audience needs to withstand the intensity of what feels like an oncoming stroke, from the first frame onwards. The “R” rating here is for language, graphic violence, and adult situations. I would advise parents against sharing this movie with their teens.

For his stellar work here, Sandler won the independant film equivalent of the Actor in a Leading Role Oscar–the “Best Male Lead” Independent Spirit Award–in 2020.

As I mentioned in the introduction about the new interview, Adam Sandler didn’t define there exactly what kind of exciting, new project he’s making with these writers/directors/producers; But Deadline reported Thursday that the cat’s out of the bag, according to their sources.

While Adam Sandler hasn’t been shy about talking about his next project with Josh and Benny Safdie during his Hustle press tour, Netflix has now officially boarded the untitled feature, which is currently in development at the streamer. Sandler is attached to star with the Safdies writing, directing and producing.

Netflix would not confirm any other details, but sources say the hope is to shoot the project in the second quarter of 2023, which would likely make it Sandler’s next project. One insider close to the project said that start date is TBD as the siblings are still putting finishing touches on the script.

The streamer would also not confirm plot details, though several sources say it is likely set in the world of high-end card collecting.

We’ll just have to wait and see what wonders the trio concocts next.


Punch-Drunk Love

Then there’s the exquisite “Punch-Drunk Love,” directed by probably my favorite director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The cast is small, but one of the joys of this film is Lena, played by Emily Watson, as Barry’s potential love interest. And there’s a crucial, bittersweet cameo here from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. In this one, Sandler plays Barry Egan, a lonely, middle-manager type of guy, with a hive of sisters who don’t understand him, a lost harmonium–and cases and cases of pudding containers.

I’m sorry, but you can’t say more about the plot without spoiling the surprises and twists here. It’s a quirky romance for people who don’t like the usual, lame romcoms. Watch it immediately, even if it’s with commercials (it’s free on the PlutoTV platform right now). As the film’s tagline says, “There are no inadequecies.”

For context on the movies above, here’s some of what Sandler said in the podcast–on his innate ability to resonate with the role of “outsider” and, well, that small feeling or voice inside so many people that trends to the “uncomfortable,” or that might insist we are “loser[s].” I love that the actor is genueinely humble about his acting skills/choices:

“I just have a natural part of my brain that feels like I don’t belong here.This feeling uncomfortable and loser stuff I’ve been doing for years, it’s in me.”

Sandler also opened up about how he feels about some of his past work.

“I feel the same in the way that I was always pretty excited to be doing it. I don’t look back at any of my old stuff and go, ‘Wow, you nailed it there, man.’ I’m usually like, ‘Wow, you were just getting by, man.’”


“I always thought I was doing the right thing in the moment, and I still do, but I look back at even stuff from five years ago and I go, ‘Oh, should’ve done this, man, that was a little weird choice that you made there, man. What the hell happened?'”

“I think just getting more and more settled as a human being, my acting is probably changing over the years.”

Most people understand that the tone of the word “loser” is much different from the sense of a word like “misfit.” Sandler’s roles falls into the latter category, I think.


Essential Viewing verdict: Cinema can still show us gems like these, even if the movies happen to include the man who produced a slew of silly comedies over the past few decades. In Adam Sandler’s case, there’s so much more than people might think, at first glance.

Related: HIGHER CULTURE: ‘Respect’ review


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