The Complete Guide to Adam Sandler’s Acting

The various states of Adam Sandler, in GIFs. Photo: Maya Robinson

In The Cobbler, which comes out this week, Adam Sandler plays a guy who turns into other people when he puts on their shoes. You’d think that a high-concept idea like that would fit right in the funnyman’s wheelhouse, but the film actually has different actors playing the different characters whose forms Sandler assumes. (The movie, directed by Win-Win’s Tom McCarthy, is more an earnest emotional comedy-drama than a typical Sandler comedy.) A shame, too, because Adam Sandler has been known to show some range. Often, he does so with just a few simple steps — a squint here, a pursed lip there. But over the course of his career, he’s managed to convey a surprising degree of emotions with the limited tools at his disposal. How does he do what he does? Here’s a field guide to just some of the various emotions and states of being that Sandler has conveyed over the years.

Lovable Nitwit

Here is Sandler in his original state, as a self-consciously exaggerated variation on the dimwitted man-child. (See also: The Waterboy and any number of SNL skits.) But his shtick is an inclusive one: It consists of the kind of weird mannerisms people might do for fun when they're alone — which is why the bathtub scene in Billy Madison is so funny, and so true.


In his early films, when he wasn’t being an adorable doofus, Sandler was playing primo jerks. And back then, few were better at this sort of unhinged, gross humor.

Furious, Variation 1 (Frustrated)

Sandler's flights of fury have always been an essential component of his work, but they come with subtle variations. In this scene in Big Daddy, for example, Sandler doesn't fully let loose his rage — instead, this is more of an exasperated outburst, and yet, given that all he wants is a Happy Meal, it’s pretty funny.

Furious, Variation 2 (Indignant)

Sometimes we’re totally with the Sandler character’s fury — insofar as we share his bewilderment at the world. Anger Management, whatever its other flaws, actually did a good job playing off that relatability.

Furious, Variation 3 (Slapstick)

This is Sandler fully unleashed. And the stylized anger he demonstrates is kin to his lovable doofus persona. We get a visceral release watching him totally lose it.

Furious, Variation 4 (Poignant)

Sandler’s physical rage was played for laughs in many of his early films. But in Punch-Drunk Love, he was able to take that same anger and find something moving in it.


For all his bro-friendly aggression, Sandler is often at his best (and most sincere) when he's portraying someone being embarrassed. Here, as he finds out his fiancée is sleeping with some other guy, he plays it totally straight — and lets his ridiculously huge nose add the comedy.


We’ve argued elsewhere (at really unconscionable length) that a deep self-loathing runs through Sandler's work. Sometimes that self-loathing manifests itself physically — during the basketball game in The Longest Yard, in which Sandler's disgraced quarterback allows himself to get repeatedly pummeled by his fellow prisoners. Also, please enjoy this GIF of Adam Sandler getting elbowed in the face.


There’s an inherent nervousness to Sandler that the right director sometimes brings out. In Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson cast Sandler as a sheltered, lovesick, obsessive-compulsive neurotic, and the actor didn’t even have to do all that much. Here, as he absorbs the humiliations of his family, even the smallest gestures say so much. 


Especially in his later films, Sandler has had fun acting the part of a lothario, which was so not part of his original appeal. But he’s very natural when he does it — no exaggerated Pepé Le Pew mannerisms, even though the films often point to the moral bankruptcy of these characters.


Sandler's earnestness first became real in Big Daddy, where he had to show that he was genuinely capable of raising the child he wanted to adopt. Such solemntiy would become less and less convincing in his later films, but here, as he confronts his own disappointed lawyer father during a trial and actually makes his peace with him, Sandler shows real emotion. The scene is surprisingly moving as a result.


Though Sandler rarely Acts with a capital A, he also rarely lets us see his real self. But in Funny People, he plays a successful comedian who connects with a group of younger aspirants. And although the character is much more of a jerk than Sandler (who is by all accounts a pretty nice guy), this scene where he briefly toasts the younger comedians rings surprisingly authentic. For one short moment, we sense that we’re watching the real Adam Sandler speaking to a table full of young colleagues.

Comically Anguished

In his earlier films, Sandler’s childlike persona was his great asset. But he could vary it: Sometimes the child was a punk you wanted to punch; sometimes he was the kind of gentle, wounded soul you wanted to hug. Here’s Sandler in The Wedding Singer finding out his fiancée is dumping him. This is the kind of Sandler you want to hug.

Touchingly Anguished

Judd Apatow’s Funny People got very mixed reviews, but Sandler was fantastic in it, and for its first half, when his character thought he was dying, his terrified, lonely despair was palpable.

Really, Really Anguished

Sandler has spent so much of his career doing things ironically — being sentimental ironically, or distraught ironically, or angry ironically — that it’s surprising whenever he goes emotionally big in a heartfelt way. And yet he does just that in Reign Over Me, where he plays a broken man who lost his family on 9/11. Here he finally recalls the trauma, and it’s hard not to be touched by his torment.

Celebratory (Unhinged)

Once upon a time, Adam Sandler riding a golf club around in celebration during a golf tournament was sort of a metaphor for life. Sometimes you just want to cut loose in the most inappropriate places.

Celebratory (Surreal)

Here is Adam Sandler high-fiving a walrus. Has Daniel Day-Lewis ever high-fived a walrus?

Charmingly Romantic

The reason that Adam Sandler of all people has had good luck with romantic comedies is because the gap between his jerk persona and his moments of sincerity is so vast; when a guy like that turns into a romantic, it means something. By playing the jerkiness broad and then swallowing the  sincerrity — almost as if he’s slightly ashamed to be showing this side of himself — Sandler, at his best, makes his characters’ transformations palpable.

Fidgeting Romantic

Marrying Sandler’s innate nervousness with romance is an inspired mixture. The actor’s heightened mannerisms represent how many of us feel when we’re in love with someone whom we feel is better than us. His fidgety, anxious walk here feels so true in the context of a romantic comedy.

Narcissistic Israeli Superagent (We Don’t Have a Better Name for This)

The deliriously funny You Don’t Mess With the Zohan at first seemed to be out of Sandler's comfort zone — a confident, exaggerated narcissist — but he nailed it. Of course, part of the joke of Zohan is watching the ordinarily schlubby Sandler act a part like this; half the time you’re laughing as much at the concept as you are at any individual gag.


Okay, let’s be clear. This is not one of Sandler’s finer acting moments. But Click is one of those movies where Sandler’s character has to run the full range of emotions. And yet, the actor rarely commits to them, performance-wise. Ironically, though, when it comes time for his death scene, this pays dividends — because the whole point of the movie is that we’re watching someone watch his life go by.