Adam Sandler, Oscar nominee. Crazy words, perhaps, but maybe you should get used to hearing them.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, and subsequent film festivals, his work in a little film called Uncut Gems wowed critics and audiences alike.
Sandler has always been a conundrum for moviegoers. His films are almost always as lazy as the characters he plays, not that there’s much difference among them.
Often playing sports-obsessed, anti-intellectual, sentence-drawling characters, he has long made one forgettable movie after another. Even when he plays a grown-up, there’s something adolescent and unformed in his makeup. He turns the virtue of playing an everyman into the queasy territory of playing a not-quite-lovable shlemiel.
But he gets away with it, time after time. His characters, often overtly Jewish, are not drawn from the driven, neurotic souls that populate Jewish pop culture, but from the forgotten suburban kids who spend their time in rec rooms and at baseball games. His stooped gait and sloped shoulders suggest a shrug is the appropriate response to the world. There’s a big audience for this.
But then, every once in a while, Sandler shows himself to be a consummate actor and appears in a film that sends cineastes running to the theatres.
Sandler made a name for himself on Saturday Night Live, officially beginning in 1991, alongside a cast that included David Spade and Rob Schneider – both still close friends and collaborators. He’d previously done some stand-up, but it was never considered stellar work. Nevertheless, he shone enough to break out as a movie star in 1995 with his starring role in Billy Madison. Fast forward to the present day, when his films, mostly unwatchable without a bong, have grossed over US$2 billion worldwide.
But then Sandler surprises. When a top-rate director like Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as the lead in Punch-Drunk Love, in 2002, everyone scoffed – but everyone also grudgingly agreed he pulled it off.
The little-seen Reign Over Me, a 2007 drama starring Sandler as a man who loses his entire family in the 9/11 disaster, would seem to be the polar opposite of his usual fare. But, again, he pulled it off. And he shined in 2004’s Spanglish, directed by the great James Brooks, in a family-centered dramedy that showed his range and subtlety.
I was always impressed by how upfront Sandler has been about his Jewishness. The Hanukkah Song is a great musical piece celebrating that “other” winter holiday. And Don’t Mess With the Zohan is a wild romp of a film starring Sandler as an Israeli hairdresser and secret agent. He nails the accent and the attitude.
Uncut Gems is written and directed by the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, nice Jewish boys from New York who specialize in small films about big lowlifes. It follows Sandler as a diamond merchant whose life melts down as he makes one bad decision after another. Supposedly the Safdies waited a decade to get Sandler to agree to the part, so certain were they that he was the only actor who could play this difficult, dialogue-dense role of a man in moral free fall. To prepare for the part, Sandler spent months in the diamond district in New York City studying the nuances of the mostly Orthodox community that dominates the gem trade.
The movie moves at breakneck speed, and so does Sandler as he wheels and deals among buyers, sellers, bookies, wives, mistresses and assorted ne’er-do-wells. The part is colourful, to say the least, and the movie is not without violence and raw language. Billy Madison, it is not.
Does Sandler really have a shot at an Oscar? He was recently snubbed by the Golden Globes, which does not bode well. But the movie is just starting to open (it opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Christmas Day and then drops on Netflix in January), and he’s got some momentum. And if the holy trinity of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are all nominated for The Irishman, they might split the vote and let Sandler slide up the middle.
In that case, he would be known as “Adam Sandler, Oscar winner.” Four words you never thought you’d hear, but just might.