Reports of Adam Sandler’s comedic comeback have been greatly exaggerated. The actor-comedian has been garnering raves for his Netflix stand-up special, making 100% Fresh nearly that well reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes. (As of this writing, it’s actually 92 percent fresh, which is surely as much a surprise to Sandler as to anyone.) But why? While the material in 100% Fresh may technically be new, it’s hardly original. Most of it is just a litany of petty complaints—about chatty women, slow pedestrians, and drooping testes—that arrive practically cobwebbed.
The special’s few surprises, meanwhile, are the occasional gags that are actually at his expense. (“My Uber driver smells bad,” goes one ditty. The laugh cue, seen from a mile away: “Oh wait, I shit my pants.”) Mostly, though, Sandler aims for an extreme relatability, focusing on domestic hassles: being asked to volunteer at his children’s school, the guilt of urinating in the shower (a subject Seinfeld already explored more than two decades ago), a wife who resists anal sex. And it’s never long before he’s back to laughing at others. When he stretches himself to contemplate space exploration, for example, Sandler lands on the most Sandler-esque observation possible: Men 69-ing each other is pretty funny.
The comedians who have enjoyed the most critical acclaim in the past five years—Louis C.K., John Mulaney, Amy Schumer (at least on Inside Amy Schumer), Ali Wong, Hannah Gadsby—are joined in the specificity of their points of view. Against the backdrop of those comics’ relevance and popularity—based in part on distancing themselves from the aggrieved, middle-aged male petulance that Sandler epitomizes and that the comedy world relied on for too long—Sandler’s schlub shtick is, more than ever, not a comeback but a throwback. Yes, he evinces here the assured stage presence and intuitive comic timing of a mega-successful comedian who’s worked nonstop for the past 20-something years. But the eagerness to backslap Sandler for the type of puerile and incurious humor he’s been peddling for the past two decades is revealing on its own, too.
It’s a media cycle at least as old as Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 drama Punch-Drunk Love: Will the face of The Waterboy and Little Nicky do a U-turn and finally make good movies? Since then, the pattern has repeated every few years, as Sandler has continued to dabble in prestige (or prestige-ish) projects: James L. Brooks’ Spanglish in 2004, Judd Apatow’s Funny People in 2009, Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children in 2014, and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories in 2017. (Anderson also filmed parts of 100% Fresh.) In the gaps between these movies, Sandler has always reverted to the same lazy dreck, churning out nearly 20 more spiritual cousins of Jack and Jill, including a number of single-digit scorers on Rotten Tomatoes. (The Netflix release The Ridiculous 6 boasts a rare 0 percent on the reviews aggregation site.) I won’t argue against the 92 percent rating for 100% Fresh—critics are entitled to their opinions and individual tastes—but it’s worth asking why we’re so invested in his artistic redemption.
Adam Sandler is rich. And talented. And connected. And even though his box-office returns famously dwindled before his move to Netflix, which doesn’t release viewership numbers, Sandler probably has enough pull, maybe even the goodwill, to make whatever lower-budget, higher-stature films he wants. But much more often, he doesn’t. Are we, then, still waiting for Hollywood’s most famous man-child to grow up, in the same way that the most gullible among us expected Donald Trump to pivot to presidentialness in the days following the 2016 election? If so, we might hold our breath forever. It surely doesn’t help that the franchise-ification of studio filmmaking is turning even the more “respectable” actors in Sandler’s cohort, like Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr., into rinse-and-repeat craftsmen.
Sandler also has nostalgia working in his favor, as evidenced by both the special’s tribute to the late Chris Farley and a much-applauded (though hardly funny) monologue-cum-slideshow about his bar mitzvah. Sandler’s longtime fans might just want to see a guy they grew up with succeed, to mature the way they have.
But if forced into a corner, even the most hardcore among them might have to admit that the actor isn’t so exceptional that the art house really needs him, that the hopes for a Sandlerssaince should spring eternal. After all, even in the Oscar-chasing pictures, he’s generally only excelled when playing variations on a single extremely specific character, usually written for him: A past-his-prime sad sack suffering from a case of arrested development and prone to explosions of rage—just an artsier gloss on the same character he played in Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and, well, Anger Management. Meanwhile, most of his post–Funny People roles could be as capably played by any number of experienced actors. (Jason Schwartzman would have done a perfectly good job as an exasperated loser from a hyperliterate Manhattan family in The Meyerowitz Stories, for instance, even ably handling the role’s violent fits of anger.)
But I’m inclined to think that the truest answer lies in the fundamentals of storytelling. For most of his career, the gulf between Sandler’s potential talent and his actual body of work has felt like an unresolved chord, a problem to be solved. For whatever reason, we can’t accept that he’s fine just printing money while filming his latest flimsy excuse for a vacation. That he’s simply a privileged guy openly reveling in his privilege, even as the news is filled with such characters. That despite his occasionally feints toward maturity, he’s probably never really going to change. Maybe we’re the ones who should be moving on and growing up.