For the first name that pops into pretty much anyone’s mind when lazy Hollywood comedies catering to the lowest common denominator are mentioned, Adam Sandler’s had a pretty diverse career as an actor. His filmography may be a minefield of dumb comedies produced as an excuse for Sandler and his old SNL pals to take a vacation to some exotic place on the studio’s dime, but it would be a disservice to what he’s accomplished to toss him aside as a comedy black hole, especially when he has legitimately delivered some of the most enduring comedic/dramatic performances of the last quarter century.
So, in honor of his third attempt at a lame Bela Lugosi voice in Hotel Transylvania 3, let’s break down his top 10 performances:
10. Pip, Airheads (1994)
Sandler’s bread and butter during his rise to fame in the ’90s was his unique adeptness at tapping into a lovable weirdo archetype, the kind of character you’d do anything to avoid upon first impression, but could warm up to after spending a bit of time with him. Pip, the soft spoken but passionate metalhead who holds a radio station hostage with his two bandmates (Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi) in this underrated time capsule of a comedy, is the best of Sandler’s pre-stardom performances. He takes such a small supporting role and makes it memorable.
9. Zohan, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008)
Sandler’s often accused of employing annoyingly cartoonish voices to his characters to get easy chuckles. The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Eight Crazy Nights—the list goes on. His story of an Israeli super soldier who moves to America in order to become a hairdresser is the only one of these films that actually works, because the tone of the project finally matches Sandler’s no-fucks-given attitude toward any shred of source material, not getting bogged down in third act schmaltz that actually expects us to take its ridiculous protagonist seriously. Co-written by Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow, this parody of Israeli stereotypes—no wonder it flopped; any audience who’d get these jokes is pretty tiny—has the absurdist energy and abrasiveness of a feature-length Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or Ambiguously Gay Duo sketch, and Sandler’s meticulously stupid lead performance is the perfect fit.
8. Billy Madison, Billy Madison (1995)
Sandler’s first foray into leading man territory may still be remembered as “one of the good ones” compared to his contemporary comedies, but, while that might not truly be the case with the insanely dated, wonky and far too juvenile (even for the attempted juvenile humor) Billy Madison, it would be hard to dismiss how perfectly sculpted the part was for Sandler. An entitled trust fund shithead who bullies everyone around him, but who conveniently turns out to have a heart of gold, Billy Madison was Sandler’s springboard to mega stardom.
7. Happy Gilmore, Happy Gilmore (1996)
This is the movie that set the iconic Sandler Yell into stone. If you’re a child of the ’90s, you know exactly how this goes: It starts off quiet, and before you know it, the sentence ends in a maniacal holler of unabashed fury. With the cardboard cutout premise of a hockey player getting into golf—hockey’s an angry game and golf is gentle, so he’ll lose his shit on the golf course, get it?—in order to save his grandmother’s house, there isn’t much to hang onto here other than the promise of a funny and charming lead performance. Sandler certainly delivers that, and manages to let us forget not only the hacky script, but the blatant product placement. There isn’t a shot in this movie without that fucking Subway logo.
6. Henry Roth, 50 First Dates (2004)
There’s something about the undeniable on-screen chemistry he has with Drew Barrymore that brings out the romantic in Sandler. Of course there’s The Wedding Singer, but 50 First Dates, wherein Sandler’s marine biologist tries to get a woman (Barrymore) who suffers from complete memory loss at the beginning of every day to fall in love with him over and over again, is one of the most touching rom-com performances of his career, with the love story at the center of the movie engaging, ending on an intriguing note. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wade through a lot of the same kind of narrative sludge that plagues most of Sandler’s comedies, with yet another insanely racist Rob Schneider character and mean “jokes” (a character is supposed to be ridiculous simply because she’s a butch lesbian). Keep the fast-forward button handy.
5. John Clasky, Spanglish (2004)
Sandler’s dramatic work usually brings out his quieter, introspective side. Still, his role as John Clasky, a chef and a family man who tries to keep his neurotic family in order, might be his subtlest and least showy performance yet. Director James L. Brooks is the patron saint of dramedies about existentially confused upper middle class characters who struggle to make sense of their privileged (yet shallow) lives, so one expects an outwardly manic performance (see: Albert Brooks) from Sandler as his character gradually falls in love with their housekeeper (Paz Vega) while his midlife crisis rears its ugly head. However, by latching onto a quiet and loving all-American dad persona, Sandler lets us immediately identify with the character.
4. Charlie Fineman, Reign Over Me (2007)
When someone who’s only seen Sandler’s comedy work tell you they don’t believe that the goofy Little Nicky is actually a pretty spectacular dramatic actor, show them the heart-wrenching monologue of Reign Over Me, in which a mentally ill man (Sandler) who’s cut himself off from the outside world after losing his entire family on 9/11 finally opens up to his best friend (Don Cheadle) about his horrific experience. This performance proves just how much emotion Sandler can communicate through the simplest expressions. Relatively monotone, avoiding melodramatic highs and lows, Sandler manages to let us into his character’s pain and eventual hope through an organically delicate performance.
3. George Simmons, Funny People (2009)
Judd Apatow’s dramedy is about the lifetime regrets of a comedian who became a superstar by starring in dumb comedies that cater to the lowest common denominator. Gee, I wonder who’d be the perfect actor for that part? Apatow is fearless in the way that he holds an existential mirror up to his best friend, going as far as using home videos he took of Sandler while they were a bunch of nobodies rooming together, further blurring the line between the fictional George Simmons and the real actor. Sandler stands up to the challenge with a an honest performance showcasing the inherent charm and charisma of such a powerhouse comedian, never diluting the dickish ego and narcissism that comes with it.
2. Danny, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Growing up with an extremely tough and borderline emotionally abusive parent, a lot of that parent’s offspring would expectedly get as far away as they can once they’ve reached adult age. But there’s always a sibling who has to stay behind and carry the burden of that aging parent for the rest of their family. The meek and silently melancholic Danny in Noah Baumbach’s career-great The Meyerowitz Stories is that sibling, yearning for freedom while under the constant scrutiny and co-dependent toxicity of his father (Dustin Hoffman). This is a tough role for any actor to undertake, communicating so much yearning and frustration under the veneer of a polite and generous family man. In 2017, we were already accustomed to Sandler’s capability as a dramatic actor, yet he still manages to surprise us with this subtly layered performance.
1. Barry Egan, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Sandler was only known for his comedy at the release of Punch-Drunk Love, his reputation becoming staler and staler as his career went along. Yet PTA pulled a genius move by taking the odd goof with anger issues that Sandler played so well and grounding him. We get Barry Egan (Sandler), one of the most profoundly relatable rom-com protagonists in the genre’s history. Egan is a simple man who just seeks love, crippled by self-doubt spurred on by his judgmental sisters. When he meets Lena (Emily Watson), someone who seems to understand him, love erupts from him accompanied by PTA’s exuberant and colorful depiction of a classic romance in cynical modern times. Sandler is game the whole way through, packing in and balancing palpable emotion between his self-reflective moments and his more explosive ones.