Adam Sandler's unlikely route to being Hollywood's highest-paid star

After earning nearly $100m in 2023, we look at the Sandman's unlikely rise to the top and his schizophrenic career.

Adam Sandler's latest movie Spaceman has been a hit on Netflix. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Adam Sandler's latest movie Spaceman, one of his more dramatic roles, has been a hit on Netflix. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Adam Sandler has officially been named 2023’s highest paid actor by Forbes. Quite an extraordinary feat in a year when Barbenheimer was all anyone seemed to want to talk about.

In the first six months of 2023 alone, Netflix subscribers spent over 500 million hours watching Adam Sandler movies, says Forbes, and he was paid $97 million for the privilege. That is a lot of people 'checking if it’s as bad as they say' one would argue. It’s true that Sandler might be having somewhat of a career renaissance of late, even if his latest film for Netflix, the unfussy sci-fi drama Spaceman has divided critics.

Still, you do have to wonder why someone like Sandler who could literally pick and choose his roles as he pleases has continued to make such lowbrow comedies, year in, year out.

Martin Scorsese has his own filmmaking formula of 'one for them, one for me' as a way of getting his pictures made by Hollywood. He agrees to make a picture that the studio desperately needs to be made, as a means to getting the budget to make the film he wants to make next.

While this is a clever way of working around the rigidity of an industry largely motivated by profit, it’s undeniable that very few filmmakers have hitherto managed to strike the right balance between being seduced by box-office glory and staying true to themselves.

Murder Mystery 2 stars Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler. (Netflix)
Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in Netflix's Murder Mystery 2. (Netflix)

In the case of Sandler, “one for them, one for me” has resulted in a pattern where — despite some brilliant work elsewhere — he continues to make his fortune largely through his work in lowbrow comedies.

Sandler started his career by starring in some fairly inconsequential comedies such as Valerie Breiman’s largely panned Going Overboard in 1989. In it, the much-loved actor plays a struggling young comedian who takes a menial job on a cruise ship hoping for his big chance to make it in the world of cruise-ship comedy. The film was met with almost total indifference, and only belatedly reached a wider audience in 1995, when he had been a fixture for a full five years on the hugely popular weekly live TV comedy institution, Saturday Night Live.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1 -- Aired 09/25/1993 -- Pictured: (l-r) David Spade as Christy Henderson, Adam Sandler as Lucy Brawn and Chris Farley as Cindy Crawford during
Adam Sandler (C) with David Spade and Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live in 1993. (Getty Images)

Yet despite such an inauspicious, awful debut on the big screen, Sandler soon confounded expectations in 1991 by co-starring as an alcoholic clown in Bobcat Goldthwait's eerily brilliant black comedy, Shakes the Clown. While this was largely panned by critics again, it was left to one Martin Scorsese to defend it, heartily agreeing with one supportive reviewer who described it as ‘the Citizen Kane of Alcoholic Clown Movies’.

More nonsensical slapdash comedy roles followed for Sandler including Coneheads, Airheads, and Mixed Nuts. But his new status as an established SNL cast member transformed his career into a hugely profitable endeavour – both Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore managed to more than double their budget at the box office.

Adam Sandler in 1998's The Wedding Singer. (Alamy)

1980's themed The Wedding Singer, made on a budget of a mere $13 million, was an absolute box office smash, grossing over $123 million. Later, Sandler went on to make more of the usual nonsensical comedies, but this time with added credit of either writer or producer through his Happy Madison production company.

It wasn’t until 2002 that we got to see him in what is, arguably, his best film role to date. Sandler surprised everyone when he was cast in acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s absurdist romantic comedy-drama Punch Drunk Love.

What was the most surprising about this casting, wasn’t that it was completely out of Sandler’s realm, but that it also felt like an extension of what he had been doing before. In Punch Drunk Love, Sandler stars a deeply troubled entrepreneur with social anxiety who falls in love with his sister's co-worker. The role had depth, nuance and more than its fair share of soul-searching, but it also had the element of absurdist comedy we’ve come to expect from the actor.

Adam Sandler teamed up with Paul Thomas Anderson for 2002's Punch Drunk Love. (Alamy)
Adam Sandler teamed up with Paul Thomas Anderson for 2002's Punch Drunk Love. (Alamy)

While critics fell over one another to heap praise over Sandler’s decision to try something slightly out of the ordinary, the actor continued to score more box office hits with largely panned titles such as Mr. Deeds, The Hot Chick, Anger Management and the admittedly sweet 50 First Dates.

It wasn’t until 2017 that we got to see “the other Sandler” again thanks to a brilliant starring ride, alongside Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, a smart New York comedy about an estranged family gathers together in New York City for an event celebrating the artistic work of their father.

<p>Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman.<br /> Appearing as Cannes 2017, ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ is already turning heads. The new comedy-drama follows an estranged family as they gather together to celebrate the artistic work of their father.<br /> (Photo Credit: Netflix) </p>
Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel in 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories. (Netflix)

Luckily we only had to wait another two years for Sandler to take on another electrifying role when he starred in the Safdie brothers’ award-winning crime caper Uncut Gems. It was the role of a lifetime which has made a generation of Sandler agnostics into certified fans.

This more acclaimed success, which many perceived as yet another new departure from his earlier, sillier, inconsequential films, would not prevent him slipping back into more of the usual schtick.

His is a career so confusingly disjointed that not even Sandler himself could explain it fully. Asked about his relationship with critics, Sandler famously said “every time I do a movie, the director is gonna go ‘Hey Sandman reviews are gonna be good on this’. I’m like, ‘No they’re not, don’t even think about it’.” This, perhaps more than anything, highlights the reason why he has continued to work the way he has for so many years.

Adam Sandler as Jakub in Spaceman. (Netflix)
Adam Sandler as Jakub in Spaceman. (Netflix)

While it is more than understandable to wonder about Sandler’s continued addiction to making popular comedies that are largely panned to critics, we also must accept that these films are also hugely popular.

One also suspects that Sandler is making the movies he truly wants to make, so who are we really to tell him otherwise? His deal with Netflix over the last few years has proved that there is huge appetite for these movies — case in point the huge success of the Murder Mystery mini franchise.

So with that said, does it really matter that we are only ever likely to get one decent Sandman movie every other year, if we must also endure the less critically acclaimed stuff?

Spaceman is streaming on Netflix.

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Watch a trailer for Spaceman