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News / Life / Entertainment

Serious side of Adam Sandler yields many gems

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Published: March 1, 2024, 6:01am
2 Photos
Juancho Hernangomez, left, and Adam Sandler in &ldquo;Hustle.&rdquo; (Cassy Athena/Netflix/TNS) (Netflix)
Juancho Hernangomez, left, and Adam Sandler in “Hustle.” (Cassy Athena/Netflix/TNS) (Netflix) Photo Gallery

An upside to Adam Sandler’s long-standing business relationship with streaming behemoth Netflix is that it’s given the beloved funnyman room to experiment. Over the course of his deal with Netflix, he’s turned in several of his silly ensemble comedies with his best pals, shot in exotic locations, but the Sandman has increasingly turned to more diverse content across the board. Just last year, he premiered the animated feature “Leo,” and “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” starring his daughters Sunny and Sadie, and wife Jackie. But what’s more fascinating is when Sandler turns away from comedy entirely, embracing the more dramatic side of his performance range and working with surprising new filmmakers.

One of the best examples of this recent phenomenon was the excellent basketball flick “Hustle,” in which Sandler plays a Philly sports agent who recruits a wunderkind street baller from Spain (Juancho Hernangomez). This warm domestic drama directed by Jeremiah Zagar showcases Sandler in a nice, low-key performance register, and features just about every NBA superstar past and present in small roles and cameos. Stream it — where else? — on Netflix.

But Sandler goes even more serious and withdrawn in his performance in “Spaceman,” which streams on Netflix today. Adapted by Colby Day from Jaroslav Kalfar’s 2017 novel “Spaceman in Bohemia,” “Spaceman” is directed by Swedish filmmaker Johan Renck (“Chernobyl”), and features Sandler as “the loneliest man in the universe,” playing a Czech cosmonaut exploring the outer reaches of Jupiter’s clouds. He worries about his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), and spends his time chatting with a possibly imaginary giant spider on his spacecraft, voiced by Paul Dano. This is lo-fi sci-fi of the chillest register, far more concerned with Jakub’s emotional journey, and it’s a moody tone poem centered around Sandler’s hangdog expression. Still, it’s fascinating to see him in a project that pushes his talents into such a different register, and it’s quite possibly his most purely dramatic role yet, not that we should be surprised what he’s capable of at this point.

In 2020, Sandler won an Independent Spirit Award for his performance as inveterate gambler Howard Ratner in the Safdie brothers’ 2019 thriller “Uncut Gems.” This edge-of-your-seat stress test follows New York City diamond dealer Howard as he makes a series of increasingly risky gambles with a rare gemstone. It’s an unforgettable wild ride. Stream it on Netflix, Showtime or rent it elsewhere.

A decade before that, Sandler also showcased the sad side of funny in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” about a stand-up comedian contending with a cancer diagnosis. Stream it on Starz or rent it elsewhere.

One of Sandler’s best, and most underrated roles comes in Noah Baumbach’s 2017 dramedy “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” Sandler plays one of three siblings (including Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel) contending with the legacy of their father. The film is quite deft at cutting between drama and comedy. Stream it on Netflix.

Of course, the first time Sandler surprised audiences with his dramatic chops was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 absurdist romance “Punch-Drunk Love.” Sandler plays a socially awkward toilet-plunger salesman who gets scammed by a phone sex operator and her team of heavies.

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