The Top 10 Adam Sandler Films: Exploring the Actor’s Diverse Filmography
Adam Sandler’s career post-Saturday Night Live has been nothing short of unpredictable. Transitioning his SNL antics to the big screen, Sandler not only established a thriving production empire for himself and his friends but also delivered nuanced performances in movies helmed by renowned directors. It might be tempting to dismiss his self-produced comedies, favoring those directed by “serious” filmmakers.
However, the truth is far more intricate, as acclaimed directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, the Safdie Brothers, Noah Baumbach, and James L. Brooks recognized the depth in Sandler’s peculiar manchild persona.
From uproarious comedies to profound dramas, Sandler’s filmography offers a surprising range of genres. Here, we present our carefully curated list of the top 10 Adam Sandler movies that showcase his exceptional talents and versatility on the silver screen.
10. Billy Madison (1995)
In Billy Madison, Sandler’s inaugural triumph post-SNL established the character archetype he and others would explore, with varying degrees of success, over the next three decades. Portraying the titular character, a pampered and immature hotel heir, Sandler’s journey unfolds when he discovers that his father’s wealth allowed him to bypass education. To secure his place as the head of his father’s company, Billy must return to school and navigate the challenges of grades K–12 in a mere six weeks.
This premise provides ample room for the childish Billy to hilariously interact with real children, while also serving as the foundation for the evolving yet akin character arcs that would follow. An Adam Sandler character typically undergoes a belated process of maturation, striving to change for the better, even amidst bursts of quick-tempered hostility and self-doubt, as seen in Billy’s transformation. Amidst its absurd and juvenile humor, the film embodies a core of tenderness and emerging decency, a theme that permeates much of the Adam Sandler filmography.
9. Spanglish (2004)
In James L. Brooks’ Spanglish, Sandler’s character, John Clasky, resembles an early Adam Sandler protagonist attempting to navigate adulthood. Despite being a successful chef, John appears as if he’s playing dress-up, clad in rumpled clothes and speaking with a conflict-avoidant mumble.
The film revolves around John’s troubled marriage to Téa Leoni’s character, a stereotypical rich shrew, and his growing connection with the family’s new Mexican maid, played by Paz Vega, and her teenage daughter. Directed by the acclaimed writer-director of Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, the movie explores the clash of cultures in a comedic setting.
The division between Sandler’s films, particularly those produced by his Happy Madison Productions, and projects with esteemed directors can be misleading. In Spanglish, Brooks chose Sandler due to his Happy Madison persona, skillfully capturing John’s desperate attempts to keep his family intact, infused with the actor’s perpetual sense of being overmatched and trapped in adolescence. Brooks’ script, though overwritten and clever, is elevated by Sandler’s ability to convey the filmmaker’s profound speeches through his trademark mix of sentimentality and silliness, creating a truly impactful experience.
This film, among others on this list, demonstrates how Sandler’s collaborations with renowned directors showcase his talents, often leading to critiques of underachievement in his own, occasionally underwhelming Happy Madison projects. Spanglish stands as a testament to a skilled director harnessing and expertly utilizing the strengths that Sandler consistently displays.
8. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008)
Co-written by Sandler, SNL’s Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow, the action comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan may not have aged well in terms of its politics, especially with regrettable Arab terrorist stereotypes portrayed by actors like John Turturro and Rob Schneider. However, the film showcases one of Sandler’s most unexpectedly confident performances. In a departure from his usual schlubby comedic style, Sandler transforms himself into the effortlessly lethal Mossad officer-turned-high-fashion hairstylist of the title, creating a slapstick Israeli superhero character.
As the effortlessly deadly Zohan, Sandler effortlessly blends absurdity with badassery, catching bullets in his nostril, delivering street justice with nimble feet, and charming his elderly salon clients. In this film, Sandler exudes a relaxed and amusing authority, becoming the calm eye of the comedic storm. While physical comedy is a staple in Happy Madison productions, Sandler takes center stage here, leaving audiences wishing he had collaborated with directors beyond his regular roster, like Dennis Dugan, to choreograph the comic action more dynamically.
7. Funny People (2009)
In Funny People, Sandler entrusted his lifelong friend, Apatow, to shape a narrative around him, depicting a successful star of lowbrow comedies facing a serious illness. George Simmons, played by Sandler, mirrors the actor’s own persona—a bankable lead in critically panned comedies like MerMan and Astro-Not. The character of Simmons, grappling with illness, embarks on a journey of self-discovery that critiques both Sandler’s Happy Madison productions and the public perception of him relying on concept comedies and silly voices.
Paired with Seth Rogen, who adeptly deconstructs audience expectations, Sandler portrays George’s loneliness and introspection as he hires the young comic as his companion and writer, returning to his stand-up roots. Through this film, Sandler crafts a poignant depiction of a lonely star, betrayed by his own talent, offering a glimpse into the potential path he might have taken if not for his stable and well-liked real-life self. Despite George’s attempts to reconnect with his past love (Leslie Mann) in the third act, Funny People allows Sandler to delve into one of his most complex and unsympathetic versions of his signature persona. Apatow skillfully explores Sandler’s recurring themes, suggesting that growing up late doesn’t guarantee attaining everything one desires.
6. Happy Gilmore (1996)
In Happy Gilmore, anger takes center stage in this uproarious sports comedy. Sandler’s character, a failed hockey player, discovers an unlikely talent for golf, channeling his explosive temper into a remarkable ability to wield a club. Happy Gilmore epitomizes another of Sandler’s emotionally stunted Gen-X underdogs, wrestling with unfulfilled aspirations and deep-rooted self-doubt. His journey swings between sentimental moments (fueled by his love for his financially struggling grandmother) and a burning sense of inadequacy that erupts in a “You think you’re better than me?” fury, endangering his plans and anyone who crosses his path.
Slightly toned down in its reliance on over-the-top gags compared to 1995’s Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore balances the typical Sandler-esque clowning with moments of genuine sweetness. Amidst the chaos, there’s a heartfelt struggle, epitomized by Happy’s determination to win the affection of Julie Bowen’s character. Despite the satisfaction of seeing Happy outshine his arrogant golf rival, Shooter McGavin (played by Christopher McDonald, creating an unforgettable comic villain), audiences find themselves empathizing with Sandler’s unpredictable yet love-struck goofball. The film’s climax, featuring an inventive ice rink doubles’ skate set to “Endless Love,” encapsulates this delightful blend of uproarious comedy and heartfelt sincerity, making Happy Gilmore a beloved classic in Sandler’s filmography.
5. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
In Noah Baumbach’s film, Sandler portrays Danny Meyerowitz, a character molded by loss, disappointment, and a simmering self-loathing. Unlike his previous roles marked by a lack of ambition, Danny is defined by his unwavering commitment to being the father he never had—a stark departure from his imperious artist father, played by Dustin Hoffman. Paired with Ben Stiller, who portrays Hoffman’s favored son, Baumbach masterfully explores the delicate dynamics between the loving yet estranged siblings, including their equally damaged sister, portrayed with poignant restraint by Elizabeth Marvel. The film delves into enduring family dysfunction, offering a blend of enduring comedy and heart-wrenching moments.
Unlike Baumbach’s previous film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which exuded formalistic whimsy, The Meyerowitz Stories presents a delicately realized portrait of a dysfunctional family. Sandler’s Danny, with his neglected limp, penchant for silly songs, and occasional outbursts, transcends his comedic roots, infusing the character with dramatic depth. Critics have debated Sandler’s ability to excel in such departures, suggesting other actors could perform similar roles. However, Baumbach recognized that Sandler’s unique skills in portraying underachiever pathos would make Danny Meyerowitz exceptionally resonant. Through Sandler’s nuanced performance, Baumbach crafted a character that lingers in the audience’s memory, showcasing the actor’s ability to transition between comedy and compelling drama seamlessly.
4. Hustle (2022)
In this basketball drama, Sandler shines brightly, marking a significant moment in his filmography, especially post-Uncut Gems. Portraying NBA recruiter Stanley Sugerman, Sandler’s deep passion for basketball shines through as he effortlessly studies the on-court moves of players and imparts valuable coaching tips. It’s as if he was born to play this role—a natural fit that goes beyond mere aptitude.
However, it’s in the quieter moments with his wife, Teresa (played by Queen Latifah), where Sandler truly excels. These scenes allow him to delve into the dual desperations of middle age and career stagnation, adding layers of depth to his character. Stanley’s poignant remark, “Guys in their 50s don’t have dreams; they have nightmares and eczema,” captures the essence of his struggle. While the film follows a familiar playbook akin to classics like Rocky and Hoosiers, Sandler’s commanding central performance elevates the narrative. With unwavering dedication, he takes the opportunity and drives hard to the net, earning his first Screen Actors Guild award nomination—a testament to his exceptional portrayal of Stanley Sugerman.
3. Uncut Gems (2019)
In Benny and Josh Safdie’s nerve-wracking Uncut Gems, Idina Menzel’s character, the fed-up wife of Sandler’s Howard Ratner, succinctly sums up the audience’s sentiment: “You’re just about the most annoying person I’ve ever met.” And she’s not wrong. Howard, portrayed by Sandler, is an inveterate gambler, disreputable New York jeweler, and womanizer—a motor-mouthed, immature risk taker. Yet, in the gritty world of Uncut Gems, Howard stands out as the gem in Sandler’s acting repertoire. What sets Howard apart is that, despite sharing Sandler’s brashness and boorishness, he represents the least Sandler-like character ever portrayed by the actor.
Shot with the Safdie brothers’ raw and electrifying style, the film follows Howard as he navigates loan sharks, romantic entanglements, and a high-stakes scheme involving a valuable opal, all intertwined improbably with the Boston Celtics’ 2012 playoff run (featuring actual Celtic player Kevin Garnett in a surprisingly effective comic role). Comparing Sandler to Al Pacino of the 1970s might be a stretch, but Sandler’s transformation into Howard Ratner is nothing short of remarkable. He disappears into Howard’s self-destructive, yet ever-hopeful and sweaty persona like he has never done before in any film. As we witness Howard’s downward spiral, the film evokes familiar echoes of Sandler’s career-long portrayal of immature men with grandiose dreams. However, in Uncut Gems, there’s no soft or silly landing when everything inevitably falls apart.
2. The Wedding Singer (1998)
In The Wedding Singer, Robbie Hart embodies Sandler’s early screen persona with impeccable precision. As a contented wedding crooner left heartbroken at his own altar, Sandler’s Robbie handles the situation with subdued despair when confronted by his sister with his runaway fiancée’s farewell letter. His countenance freezes in shock as he processes the news, and when his ex returns to explain, Robbie’s face contorts into sudden rage. His delivery builds to an unforgettable outburst: “Once again, things that could have been brought to my attention YESTERDAY!”
Remarkably, the film isn’t solely about a Sandler character striving for greater ambitions. Instead, The Wedding Singer crafts a delightful romantic comedy around two perfectly matched souls. Paired for the first time with his eventual three-time screen partner, Drew Barrymore, Sandler portrays Robbie’s mutual attraction to the already-engaged Julia as a delicately choreographed dance between two quirky eccentrics learning to overcome their obstacles in the realm of love and expectations.
Sandler’s musical talents and comedic timing shine brilliantly in the film’s climactic scene aboard an airplane. Inspired by Barrymore, his character performs the charming and irresistible ditty “Grow Old With You,” a song that has become a favorite among real-life wedding couples everywhere. In this heartfelt moment, Sandler captures the essence of romance, making The Wedding Singer an enduring classic in his filmography.
1. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
In Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson became the first director to truly grasp Adam Sandler’s potential, tailoring a character to match Sandler’s raw comic energy. Anderson was inspired by Sandler’s performance as a rejected ex-boyfriend in an SNL sketch, marveling at the depths of rage and pain that Sandler, known for his seemingly mild-mannered persona, could tap into effortlessly.
Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, is a socially anxious hustling inventor, overshadowed by his domineering sisters. In Anderson’s tight and tense film, often described as an “art house Adam Sandler movie,” Barry embodies all of Happy Gilmore’s repressed anger without the cathartic outlet of comic violence. That is, until he finds an unexpected love interest, portrayed with exquisite vulnerability by Emily Watson. However, their relationship is jeopardized by an innocent mistake involving a phone sex worker employed by a mattress store scammer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Navigating a world of loneliness and far-fetched aspirations, including a scheme to accumulate free airline miles through a pudding promotion, Sandler’s Barry becomes a riveting portrait of a coiled and dangerous individual—one of the few instances where an Adam Sandler character lacks his usual comic explosiveness to shield him. The collaboration between director and star in Punch-Drunk Love represents Anderson deconstructing Sandler’s career and reassembling it into a tour de force showcase, capturing a side of Sandler rarely seen before on the big screen.