One of the great strengths and weaknesses of Netflix is the streaming service’s willingness to try just about anything to an almost nonsensical degree. Their range of film and TV production is varied and extensive, boasting a catalogue of work that could rival any of their prestige television contemporaries. No other company has impacted what we watch and how we watch it more than Netflix and it is singlehandedly responsible for some of the most idiosyncratic success stories of the peak TV era.
Netflix is not afraid to take risks but when they whiff it can be calamitous yet failures like Iron Fist or Insatiable have done little to knock the growth of this media behemoth. Netflix has thrived on this full-on, throw everything at the wall approach and will likely thrive for some time to come. This is a strategy that is hard to define but one word maybe does the trick: Domination.
The people in the offices of Netflix green lighting these projects don’t seem to follow any coherent vision other than abiding to a general ‘more is more’ philosophy. There is no niche too small for Netflix, no market they won’t look to corner. Their story is one of success. Yet understanding every move Netflix makes can be challenging as we don’t possess the data they do nor are they, in principle and in operation, any kind of conventional company that can be compared to their contemporaries. A particularly head-scratching move on their part was to sign Adam Sandler, the poster boy for juvenile, critically maligned but publicly adored mainstream comedy, to an exclusive four movie deal back in 2014. At the time Sandler was a star on the wane whose last four movies had tanked. For a company desperate for prestige the move was somewhat confounding.
Except of course it wasn’t. Sandler’s movies weren’t drawing the crowds in theatres like they once did but he maintained a fiercely loyal fan base eager to tune in to some more Happy Madison productions from the comfort of their own home. And tune in they did. Films like The Ridiculous Six and The Do-Over are despised by critics but in 2017 Netflix revealed that its users had streamed over 500 million hours of Sandler content in roughly a two-year period. Netflix’s film branch has taken huge strides in recent years (soon to debut Oscar hopefuls The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma) but the engine fueling this drive has been Sandler. As always, there was a method to Netflix’s madness.
As for Sandler he was not quite as finished as his detractors thought him to be. Initially it was thought that Netflix was crazy to partner with him but once this partnership bore commercial success the focus shifted to damn Sandler. The narrative became that Sandler was half a star, a has-been given new life on a platform where people will watch anything just because it’s there. Certainly the quality of Sandler’s work on Netflix gave plenty of ammo to his critics who deemed his move from big screen to small as the final death knell of any artistic credibility he might have left. The long discussed potential of Sandler to mature into a serious artistic force was now deemed over. Billy Madison was never getting out of kindergarden.
Sandler is an immensely popular comedy star and for many of his fans that is all he is. While there are certainly worse things to be than a pretty widely adored cultural icon he has occasionally shown glimmers of his potential as one of the great modern character actors. Films like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People demonstrate that Sandler is capable of tapping into some very dark places in order to drudge up performances full of gravitas and an off-beat charm. However, Sandler has consistently favoured scraping the bottom of the cinematic barrel with his chums and making millions of dollars over serious work in low-budget fare. You can’t really blame the guy.
It is probably excessively foolish to ever believe that the dreamt of Sandlerssance will ever truly come. But I’m going to make a case for it anyway just because it’s a pretty tantalising prospect that is hard not to get excited for. Sandler is an incredible oddity in the superstar system. He is a believable everyman, someone that anyone could identify with, but he also possesses megastar charisma, the type of charm and presence that just dominates a room. You see it in his comedies just as you see it in his dramatic performances. You can see it in the real-life footage used to open Funny People of a young Sandler making prank phone calls. He’s just a kid making dumb jokes to crack up his friends. We’ve all done much the same. But watching Sandler do it you just know the kid is going to be a star.
In the last few years Sandler has been really nothing more than a joke compounded by one terrible Netflix film after another until Sandler finally put out a good one. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), directed by the great Noah Baumbach, is a funny, mature, moving rumination on the relationship between parents and children. It is not, quote unquote, an ‘Adam Sandler’ movie, but he is remarkable in it and it is a strong reminder of how breathtaking Sandler can be when he is actually committed in a movie.
The Meyerowitz Stories is the type of movie that people long hoped Sandler would take on for some time, something that allows him to actually act. Perhaps Sandler has long avoided such films precisely because they don’t serve to benefit his brand, a problem remedied by his partnership with Netflix which allows him a freedom afforded to very few movie stars. Sandler can do whatever he wants on Netflix. Why not take advantage of that once in a while?
So Sandler was involved in a good film. This isn’t headline news. But what he did next was something he has rarely done in his career. He followed up an acclaimed project not long after with another acclaimed project, the stand-up special 100% Fresh.
Sandler’s return to stand-up comedy makes use of everything that makes him great (his musicality, his warmth, his sheer relatability) as well as being just damn funny and surprisingly poignant. It’s a reminder of Sandler’s talent but also his unique place in the culture as an ageing celebrity with a devotion to his fan base that no modern star raised on social media could possibly emulate. This devotion is very much reciprocated.
Over the course of a year Sandler has gone from seemingly being completely irrelevant to more adored than he’s been in possibly a decade. His typical low brow comedies may always do big business but now maybe more than ever it makes sense for Sandler to actually consistently remind us of his talent in interesting and worthwhile work. Maybe for the first time Sandler can have it both ways. Maybe I’m very much pulling at straws. Probably.
However, next year Sandler will headline crime thriller Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers follow-up to the brilliantly sleazy Good Time, a film that will likely push Sandler into territory he has never pushed himself into before. Whether good or bad it will at least be interesting. Hopefully Sandler’s career will continue to be interesting for some time to come.