Film festivals tend to be rarefied, high-fibre affairs. But the audiences at Toronto, which kicks off on Thursday, will be clapping eyes on not one but two Adam Sandler movies: The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children.
That's the same Adam Sandler who played the dual roles of an advertising executive and his shrill twin sister in Jack and Jill, not to mention an Israeli commando turned Manhattan hairdresser ("I just want to make people silky-smooth!") in You Don't Mess with the Zohan.
However, this is a tale of two Sandlers. There is the goofy 47-year-old actor and writer whose sleepy chipmunk face and everyman demeanour give no hint of his estimated $300m (£180m)fortune – nor the $25m price-tag (including producer's fee) that comes with his participation on a movie.
His company, Happy Madison Productions, takes its name from a hybrid of two of his earliest hits (the 1995 back-to-school comedy Billy Madison and its golfing follow-up Happy Gilmore) and features in its logo the face of his late father, Stanley Sandler, a Brooklyn electrical engineer from Russian immigrant stock.
Recent successes for the company include Sandler's two Grown Ups movies, which between them earned more than $500m worldwide, as well as projects starring proteges such as Kevin James, whose Paul Blart: Mall Cop grossed $183m on a meagre $26m budget. All of which must make for an exceedingly Happy Madison.
The other Sandler is more unorthodox. Ever since he departed briefly from his own lucrative brand to star in Paul Thomas Anderson's skew-whiff rom-com Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, he has shown an occasional willingness to tamper and toy with his persona. In that film, he played a milquetoast whose rage issues emerge when he is exploited in a phone-sex scam. Perhaps it is the proximity of comedy and aggression (comics like to "slay" or "kill" their audiences, after all) that makes it strangely appropriate to see Sandler showing a more serious and volatile side.
Such an offbeat endeavour can't expect to enjoy much crossover potential with the Sandler fan base. But it does display a sense of adventure and dexterity seen in established comics chafing against their image.
Bill Murray co-wrote and starred in a 1984 adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge – in the same year as Ghostbusters no less. Steve Martin couldn't have found a sharper contrast to his own loopy vaudevillian vehicles than the lead in the grim 1981 film version of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven.
Similarly, Sandler proved in Punch-Drunk Love, and in other complex parts that pepper his CV (such as Reign Over Me, where he was a man who lost his family in the World Trade Centre attacks), that there is more to him than slapstick and fart jokes.
Early signs suggest the films unveiled in Toronto will enhance those complexities. In The Cobbler, Sandler plays a lonely shoe repairman who discovers that he can enter the lives of his customers via a magical heirloom – that he can know them by walking in their shoes. And in Men, Women & Children, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), he and Emma Thompson are part of an ensemble cast portraying people whose relationships are affected by the internet. The Sandler faithful might want to sit these ones out and wait for Grown Ups 3.
Sandler earned his stripes in the early 1990s on the evergreen US sketch show Saturday Night Live. The director Dennis Dugan wanted to cast him in Brain Donors, a 1992 comedy based on the Marx brothers' A Night at the Opera. "I thought Adam was terrifically funny, interesting and personable," Dugan says. "I brought him in for four auditions but I just couldn't get the producers to say yes." A few years later, Sandler remembered Dugan's persistence and hired him to direct Happy Gilmore. "He's completely loyal. He'll even stay loyal to people who aren't as good team-mates as you'd like them to be. That's his personality."
Dugan has directed eight of Sandler's movies, including the gay-themed I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Just Go With It (co-starring Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman) and both Grown Ups pictures. But as far back as their initial collaboration, Dugan spotted an intriguing undercurrent in the star.
"When we made Happy Gilmore I said to his agent and manager: 'He doesn't have to be just a goofball. He's got real heart and soul – he's a real actor. So we can go with the Pauly Shore version of this, or the Michael Keaton version.' They said they wanted the Michael Keaton version, and I did too."
Sandler became a one-man phenomenon; each hit outstripped the last. The Wedding Singer, in which he was a jilted groom performing 1980s pop hits and falling for Drew Barrymore, raked in $123m worldwide in 1998 and made a convincing case for him as a rom-com lead. In the same year, he was a nerd tormented by football players in The Waterboy ($190m). Both of those were eclipsed by his parenthood comedy Big Daddy, which grossed $228m the following year and still doesn't have the distinction of being his biggest hit – that would be Grown Ups ($272m), unless you count his voice work on the animated Hotel Transylvania ($359m).
The comic's pulling power has never been in doubt. But with Punch-Drunk Love, cast opposite the Oscar-nominated British actor Emily Watson, Sandler's acting skills were put to the test in some demented moments of warped romance. In one scene, the tentative lovers are exchanging whispered sweet nothings. Him: "Your face is so beautiful, I just wanna smash it, just smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it." Her: "I just wanna chew your face and scoop out your beautiful eyes with an ice-cream scooper and eat 'em and chew 'em and suck on 'em."
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who later made There Will Be Blood, felt rejuvenated by Sandler. "I tried to make this simple little movie," he said. "But sometimes simplicity can be so complicated. That's why it was good for Emily and me to work with Adam. He's so natural, he just shows up ready for work, whereas Emily and I tend to crawl up our own asses!
"It's all about learning that whatever you did the first time was probably right. You don't have to do everything 50 times and then twist a corkscrew around it just to be sure."
Sandler's career didn't take a turn for the avant-garde after Anderson's movie but it's nice to think it let some fresh air into his persona, and allowed him to accept that he did not always have to be the guy with whom moviegoers would most like to share a pint.
Judd Apatow's 2008 Funny People, a study of the tormented personal lives of a group of fictional comedians, provided another example of how fine Sandler could be when he wasn't dispatching valentines to the audience. His character, an emotionally remote megastar, is diagnosed with a terminal illness but continues to use his celebrity for sex and power even after he recovers unexpectedly. Apatow and Sandler were room-mates early in their careers; it's possible that Funny People, with its radioactive anxiety about success, is the most personal film either man has made.
After every extracurricular challenge in other people's films, Sandler always snaps back into place in his ordinary Joe, blue-collar civvies. But the influence of Funny People was discernible in the part he wrote for himself in Grown Ups, where he played Lenny, a powerful agent concerned about the wedge that wealth had driven between him and his old school chums.
Lenny is careful to remove his snazzy sunglasses in front of his pals, and tries to conceal the fact that the young Asian woman in his party is in fact his children's au pair. In the climax, Lenny forgoes a sporting victory to allow a more downtrodden man a taste of triumph, which feels like Sandler's way of reassuring us that his own feet remain on the ground, even if that ground happens to be in Bel Air.
His ordinariness is the defining characteristic of his celebrity. Few modern stars have acquired such wealth and fame from pledging allegiance to the schlubby American everyman: sweatpants, corn dogs and all.
"I don't feel he's changed," says Dugan. "He's always been a really good guy. The press aren't nice to him – the reviews are crazy-cruel. But he doesn't care. All he wants to do is make people laugh and connect with the audience. He produces, he writes, he picks the music, he's in the editing room. He's a real film-maker – he's an artist."
Born 9 September 1966, Brooklyn, New York City.
Career After working the standup circuit, he landed a small acting role on The Cosby Show. In 1990, began a four-year stint on Saturday Night Live, launchpad for comedy superstars such as Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Kristen Wiig and Eddie Murphy.
High point For him, the global success of Grown Ups. For the rest of us, his engagingly murky turns in Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People.
Low point For a star whose worth is measured in box-office receipts, it must have mattered that his 2012 film That's My Boy flopped.
What he says "I know what [the critics] are writing about me. But then remember that I didn't get into movies to please the critics. I got into it to make people laugh and have fun with my friends." (2013)
What they say "What drives him is the desire to be funny and innovative. If there's something in the film he's making and he finds out there's a similar thing in another movie that just came out, he says, 'Go watch it. If we have to cut ours, we'll cut it.' He wants it to be fresh." – Dennis Dugan.
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