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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Adam Sandler grows up (mostly)

Adam Sandler opposite Jennifer Aniston in “Murder Mystery 2.” Even in comic movies lately, the actor laces his performances with depth.

By Calum Marsh

“I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m so sad,” wails Howard Ratner, voice choked up, tears streaming down his cheeks, a wad of tissue stuffed inside his bloody nose. “I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do. Everything I do is not going right.”

Howard, played with frazzled, manic intensity by Adam Sandler, is at the end of his rope. At this point in the gambling drama “Uncut Gems,” the Diamond District jeweler is in leagues of debt, and his one final, desperate hope to raise cash — a gem auction — has just failed spectacularly. Roughed up by the guys he owes, he turns to his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), for consolation.

“Unzip my skirt,” she tells him consolingly. Turning around, she reveals that she has had his name tattooed in cursive on her backside. “It says ‘Howie’!” she exclaims.

“I don’t deserve it!,” Howard moans. After a pause, the Jewish New Yorker thinks to add, “You can’t even get buried with me now!”

Recent Sandler films, including “Murder Mystery” and its new sequel, “Murder Mystery 2,” have this same familiar intensity. They may have less serious ambitions, but they have also been greatly bolstered by the depth and nuance he has lately seemed to harness.

In many ways, this is much the same Sandler that we have seen on screen since the early 1990s, as the star of often juvenile feature comedies and as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live”: an oversize man-baby in the throes of an antic tantrum. In films such as “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” Sandler specialized in a kind of galvanic caricature of Gen X arrested development, oscillating wildly between boyish puppy-dog charm and explosive, bratty anger. His shtick was the interplay of two distinct types: bashful, vaguely pathetic one moment, utterly rabid the next.

But there’s a depth of feeling evident in Sandler’s “Uncut Gems” performance that wasn’t on view in those earlier roles. From his tense shoulders to the way he grinds his teeth in moments of stress, Howard embodies a world-weariness that borders on exhaustion, looking harried and bedraggled even at his most well rested and upbeat. All of the childish vigor Sandler is known for is still there, but it’s filtered through several decades of indelible experience. He’s no longer a man-child. He’s an old man-child — and the effect of all that time on Earth shows in every gesture and every pore.

This weariness isn’t exclusive to his work in “Uncut Gems” (available to rent on major platforms). Although he has regularly met the challenge of demanding roles under the direction of auteurs — giving complex, acclaimed performances in James Brooks’ “Spanglish” (2004), Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009) and especially Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” (2004) — over the past several years, he has brought subtler and more thoughtful shading to broader, lighthearted comedies. He is drawing on his art-house gifts even in farcical contexts, and the result is some of the most rewarding work of his career.

In “Murder Mystery” and “Murder Mystery 2,” streaming on Netflix, Sandler plays Nick Spitz, a New York City police detective longing for a promotion (more to the point, a raise). In the first film, Nick and his wife, Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), are celebrating their 15th anniversary with a long-overdue trip across Europe. On the plane, Nick spots Audrey chatting with Charles (Luke Evans), a dashing, titled billionaire, and can barely contain his envy.

“I know I’m not a duke,” Nick tells Audrey sheepishly, when they have a moment alone.

“He’s a viscount,” Audrey corrects him.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Nick replies.

This exchange is typical of the couple’s banter, which ranges in the films from tender to acrimonious to protective, sometimes in the span of a single line. Sandler plays the devoted but put-upon husband with a delicate balance of compassion and aloofness, and in moments such as this, a wounded candor comes through that is oddly touching. Although there’s humor in Nick’s jealousy of his rich and handsome competitor, Sandler laces it with a feeling of threatened ego and husbandly pridefulness. You get a real sense that Nick loves Audrey, and an equally clear impression of how 15 years of husband-and-wife routine have calcified their partnership.

“Murder Mystery 2” picks up where the first film left off, with Nick and Audrey having parlayed their crime-solving success into a career as professional gumshoes. As with the original, this sequel works because it remains grounded in the mundane rhythms of a longtime marriage. And again, Sandler channels a hangdog torpor, almost a melancholic air, in a performance that bristles with comic realism. When he has to carry the ransom to a hostage exchange, he grouses about the weight of the briefcase (then gets defensive about the size of his hands); moments after a murder, he bickers with his wife about appropriate before-bed snack portions. This is a man with more down-to-earth concerns than the mystery he is ostensibly solving. Sandler, with surly charisma, makes those concerns palpable.

Even the broadest of Sandler’s recent comedies benefit from this maturation. “Hubie Halloween” (2020, on Netflix), a goofy horror parody very much in the style of vintage Happy Madison productions, stars Sandler as Hubie Dubois, a sweet-natured simpleton reminiscent of the characters he played in “Little Nicky” and “The Waterboy.” (As in those films, Sandler speaks entirely in a squeaky, abrasive voice.) The difference is that “Hubie” leans into Sandler’s latent sweetness, counterbalancing the raunchy lowbrow humor with a heartfelt — perhaps even sentimental — touch. There’s always been a deep-seated earnestness in his work: Consider the Frank Capra-esque ending of his mawkish (and underappreciated) farce “Click” (2006). Lately, alongside the weariness, that warmth has come to the fore.

The subtler, more mature Sandler of recent years is most fully showcased in “Hustle,” a sports comedy-drama by Jeremiah Zagar that was released to glowing reviews on Netflix last summer. Sandler stars as Stanley Sugerman, an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. Well-respected in his field, Stanley longs for a position on the bench: In his mid-50s and with a wife and teenage daughter he rarely sees, he badly wants to spend less time on the road and more time at home.

Sandler plays Stanley as a man who is grateful for what he has but desperate for a little bit more. A hot basketball prospect in college with a shot at a championship, he squandered his one opportunity to make it as a player in the NBA: After a night of partying, Stanley got into a drunken-driving accident that sent him to jail for six months and instantly derailed his career. Now, he carries the guilt of that choice in his every movement.

As Sandler capably plays him, he’s haunted — doomed to work in a kind of karmic penance, incapable of forgetting what might have been. It’s a sad and moving performance of remarkable emotional depth. It’s also the kind of performance that hints at where Sandler might go from here. As he continues to grow older, we might see him further hone this melancholy, perhaps eventually taking on roles like the one an aging Jerry Lewis played in Martin Scorsese’s great “The King of Comedy.”

At one point in “Hustle,” asked about the dreams he still hopes to follow, Stanley offers a rebuke meant only semi-ironically. “Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams,” he insists. “They have nightmares and eczema.” Clearly, Sandler — whether he personally agrees with the sentiment or not — has been channeling that feeling into his work. On screen now, at 56, he’s the guy who’s no longer dreaming: He has only nightmares and eczema, and whatever jokes he can muster to make about them.

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