Is Adam Sandler, the star of the new comedy Funny People, a funny person? It depends on whom you ask. Ever since The Waterboy came out in 1998, Sandler has had one of the best box-office track records in Hollywood. His movies have grossed more than $1.6 billion in the United States, and that says a lot about someone who has made a career out of dialogue like this from Billy Madison: "Of course I peed my pants! ... It's the coolest!"
I'm not knocking Sandler. In his peak, he was celebrated among teen dudes—myself included—as the next Jim Carrey (or Homer Simpson). But his critical track record is a different story. Sandler won his first major acting award in 1999. It was a Razzie for worst actor of the year for Big Daddy. In 2002, film critic Roger Ebert, who had panned all of Sandler's comedies up to that point, wrote: "He's 35 now. I know you can play an adolescent all of your life (consider Jerry Lewis), but isn't it time for us to see the real Adam Sandler?"
Sandler doesn't give interviews very often, so few people have glimpsed the real version of him. If I were to venture a guess, though, I'd say he's probably a lot like George Simmons, his character in Funny People: a superfamous, normal guy who started his career as a comedian and reached superstardom via a string of silly (and kinda bad) comedies. Sandler has tried to stretch his acting muscles before—in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish—but neither of those films really got us to see Sandler as an actor. Maybe it's because there's no such thing. Sandler hardly ever emotes onscreen, and he reads his lines like a 12-year-old banging on piano keys (the voice goes high, low, lower, higher, at random, with a screechy pitch). His biggest hits are all built around his low-key Saturday Night Live persona. That's why Funny People, directed by Sandler's former roommate Judd Apatow, is both a departure and a throwback. Sandler channels Sandler, and in the process, he gives us the best performance of his career.
How good is Sandler? At one point, he turns to his leading lady and says, "It's OK. I'm a good actor," and we actually believe him. Funny People is Sandler's answer to Notting Hill—a fantasy about what happens when a famous person falls in love with a not-so-famous person. But because Apatow is behind the camera, this romance is a bromance, and Sandler's object of affection is a young, idiotic stand-up comedian named Ira (Seth Rogen). If you've seen the trailer, you know that George is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and their friendship blossoms after an accidental run-in at a comedy club. You also know that George's cancer is cured, because this isn't Lifetime (as if any true Sandler fan would sit through a weepfest). In the second half of the movie, Sandler—I mean, George—chases after the girl who got away, Laura (Leslie Mann), and the screenplay unravels into the male version of My Best Friend's Wedding.
Even if his character is a celebrity, this is the most human we've ever seen Sandler on the big screen. He underplays the early cancer stuff, and he projects a quiet loneliness I didn't know that Sandler had. He delivers his lines without that annoying Sandler voice, and he also looks more weathered (he's 42 now). Onstage as George, he's vintage Sandler, cracking penis jokes that remind us why we fell in love with him in the first place (for most of us, it was that Chanukah song on Saturday Night Live). He benefits from being surrounded by real actors—apologies to Rob Schneider and Bob Barker. Rogen is Sandler's perfect foil, and a gleeful pupil of comedy: he's smart even when he's playing stupid. Mann dumbs down also as the bombshell ex, and she makes Sandler so comfortable onscreen, you almost wonder if she really dated him before she married his director (she's Mrs. Apatow in real life.)
Although Funny People brings out the best in Sandler, it's also Apatow's weakest film. It's essentially two movies hammered into one (as the running time shows at 150 minutes). I'm not complaining too much. It's nice that someone finally raised Sandler's game. But even if it's a high point in his career, it probably won't be a turning point for the actor. His next movie is called Grown Ups (oh yeah?), but it's directed by the same guy who made You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Maybe you don't mess with a winning formula. Or maybe Sandler isn't ready to let go of his inner child. For now, the kid stays in his pictures.