Most friendships have a sort of intrinsic half-life. Each passing year tends to draw you further from the people you care about or at least reduce the number of people you stay in touch with, but this is usually a good thing. I’d say the best number of friends is somewhere around MySpace’s platonic ideal of a top eight—just enough to keep up with to a point that isn’t overwhelming, with ample time left for your family or significant other. At 24, I’m not quite there yet, but have seen this number naturally erode over the years by way of geographic separation or mutual indifference; there is an essential core that is not going anywhere, and then there are those biannual check-ins that fall into the margins. This is how it works.
No one has applied this law of diminishing friendships to their professional life quite like Adam Sandler. There are those obvious pairings—longtime accomplices like Rob Schneider, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Henry Winkler, Nick Swardson, and so on—but Sandler has worked with just three directors for a large segment of his career, give or take the odd fling with Paul Thomas Anderson or Noah Baumbach. You probably haven’t heard their names before.
Dennis Dugan, Steven Brill, and Frank Coraci are three otherwise obscure filmmakers who have combined to direct 17 more or less interchangeable Sandler joints and, within those films, an unknown and quite possibly inexpressible number of farts. I like to imagine the three holding a sort of private auction every time a new script comes in and divvying up the films in a way that seems fair to all parties. It isn’t necessarily a unique or novel thing for directors to build up a stable of dependable actors for each new movie—Wes Anderson doesn’t seem to have added many names to his meticulously preserved antique Rolodex since like 2004—and yet it seldom runs the other way. Sandler has a stable of directors all his own, and he clearly believes in them.
This is probably a good time to mention that Sandler is a skilled actor, and one who could eventually enjoy a McConaughssaince-grade reappraisal; Sandler’s next project is the Safdie brothers’ follow-up to Good Time, which really is the most ambitious crossover event in history. When Sandler works with a talented director who can harness his talents, the results are inarguable—he has the range. But his filmography is a testament to the fact that he’d sometimes rather kind of mumble some joke about butts while blearily lounging on the beach. Most actors of Sandler’s generation would be happy to trade their professional peaks or bank accounts with Sandler. It’s the stuff in the middle—the films that are mostly the work of Dugan, Coraci, and Brill—that can be a little more spotty.
It would be not just unfair but delusional to say that the DuCorBri trifecta has not coaxed a few legendary—or, anyway, profoundly capable performances—out of Sandler. Dugan has Happy Gilmore and I guess also You Don’t Mess With the Zohan under his belt; Brill at least has the Foot Scene from Mr. Deeds; Coraci can claim The Wedding Singer. There’s really nothing that quite distinguishes one director’s style from another—Coraci tends to wear a lot of fedoras and various blobs of facial hair, but that’s a whole separate conversation. All three are best pals with Sandler, who has entrusted them to guide his career from those first breakout hits in the mid-’90s through the end of his lucrative Netflix contract.
Sandler is the center of his own universe, the rare actor who seems more in control of his creative output than any director or studio head. He tends to make all involved bend to his impulses, for better or worse. The preponderance of filmed evidence suggests that Sandler is doing more or less the work he wants to do, but those outliers suggest he’s capable of more. What Sandler will do once he gets out of his deal with the streaming titan is anyone’s guess. But to understand where Adam Sandler might go from here, it makes sense to look back at the three men who’ve shaped him, or let Sandler shape them, or just shared his taste in fart jokes. It’s time to dive into the DuCorBri canon.
To help with this work, I contacted Eloy Lugo, a music publicist for Grandstand Media by day and Adam Sandler aficionado by night and honestly also probably also by day. Lugo is perhaps our greatest living authority on this topic, a man who of his own volition leveled up from an annual 24-hour SandlerCon marathon to a full-on yearlong endurance test that he called the Year of Sandler. In honor of the thespian’s 51st birthday, Lugo is watching a Sandler movie every day for an entire year, repeats and all. When we last talked he was 100 days and maybe six more Jack and Jill viewings from the end of that task.
This work has afforded Lugo plenty of time for noticing the dubiously graceful grace notes that Sandler includes across his canon—things like squeezing a “that’s my boy!” into almost every movie, including 2012's That’s My Boy, but also the weird multiverse of recurring characters and referential strands running throughout each of Sandler’s movies. A task like this would sound masochistic no matter the actor in question, but when that performer is Sandler it looks like a true labor of love. “I’ve always had a ton of genuine non-ironic love for Sandler, he’s a fearless and incredibly gifted performer,” Lugo told me. “He’s been a constant in my life since I was a child, through SNL, his albums, and movies. His work ethic is unrivaled, he’s made a minimum of one movie a year since 1998. He was in four movies in 2014 alone.”
And so, with guidance from Eloy and my own familiarity with the Sandler vault, I got to work. The goal was to assess not just the Sandler ouevre but the DuCorBri canon in particular. The first step in doing this was coming up with five quantifiable, mathematically objective categories to determine which of the Big Three directors are the Most Extremely Sandler.
Sandler Ratio (SNR): This is the most straightforward metric of measuring a filmmaker’s commitment to Sandler. You take the total number of films in their filmography in which Sandler is in a lead role and then divide it by the total number of feature films in the filmography. Then you’ve arrived at their SNR.
Vacationability Index (VCI): Adam Sandler likes to travel, friends, and he is willing to make an entire feature film if it gets him a chance to visit Hawaii. The VCI chooses one movie from each director at random, and calculates the distance principal photography took place from Sandler’s home in Los Angeles. To take one (representative) example, Just Go With It was largely filmed in Maui—2,494 miles away from L.A.
Award Season Coefficient (ASC): While I maintain that Sandler will be nominated and perhaps even win an Academy Award at some point in the next 20 years—he was probably owed something last year for Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories—the trifecta are not how he’s going to get there. Instead, we’ll look at some more likely places of recognition. Your ASC will take the number of Golden Raspberry nominations multiplied by the number of Kids Choice Award nominations earned by each director’s films.
Sports Proximity Sum (SPS): Adam Sandler loves his sports. He’s made four movies explicitly about sports—Happy Gilmore, The Longest Yard, The Waterboy—and is never shy about recruiting sports personalities, ranging from Shaq to Dan Patrick and John McEnroe, to appear in his films in some capacity. Tally the roles of notable sports personages in each director’s film and you’ve got your SPS.
Dave Matthews Butt Coconuts (DMBC): Has the director filmed a scene in which Dave Matthews, jam-band impresario and Lady Bird-soundtracker, picks up a coconut with his ass? Add 69 points to the director’s score if so; subtract 69 points if this does not apply.
To arrive at the final score, each director’s results from each category were run through the following formula: SNR x VCI/SNF + ASC + SPS + DMBC. Dugan, Brill, and Coraci were then ranked from lowest to highest score. I don’t make the rules. Here we go:
3. Frank Coraci
SNR: .55 (5/9 films with Sandler)
VCI: 848 miles, The Ridiculous 6
ASC: 0 (2 Razzie, 0 Kids Choice)
Total Score: 29.21
There are those viral tweets you see every few months that let easily amused online people generate Their Rap Names by quote tweeting with “Yung” plus their favorite marsupial/mother’s maiden name/social security number. The aliases are mostly gibberish, but there is such a thing as an intuitive, objectively correct alias. This is relevant because Frank Coraci tends to go by variations of either FrankoSpanko or Spanknyce in his online life; he uses some version of the former in his Twitter handle and DJ name, and named his production company after the latter.
And yet, this same man is also responsible for Sandler’s closest thing to an effective melodrama. That’s Click, a movie I remembered fairly fondly on first viewing but which ended up being a little more jarring in its tonal shifts on a rewatch, is a solid enough gloss on It’s A Wonderful Life—a version of a classic American fable made for suburbanites who spend a lot of time at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. There’s nothing distinctly Coracian about Click, it should be said. He seems, as a filmmaker, to have a slightly mushier interior than his contemporaries but this...does not come through in all of his movies. For instance, he also directed the idiotic and pretty racist The Ridiculous 6. But he also directed Click, which Mick “Click” LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle hailed as “one of the best American films of the year” upon release. Frank Coraci’s filmography is truly a land of contrasts.
Sandler and Coraci are certainly ideal professional bedfellows, and they’ve worked together in three different decades now. But Coraci’s slightly lower output and disappointing vacationability keeps him at no. 3.
2. Steven Brill
SNR: .5 (4/8 films with Sandler)
VCI: 2,422 miles, The Do-Over
ASC: 2 (2 Razzie, 1 Kids Choice)
Total Score: 237.75
Diminishing friendships make you appreciate the ones that endure even more. Brill and Sandler went a whopping 14 years between collaborations—Brill was busy with some Sandler-adjacent projects, like Without a Paddle and Drillbit Taylor in the interim. But Sandler’s gargantuan multi-picture Netflix deal brought these titans back together for the doubleheader of The Do-Over and Sandy Wexler.
This is honestly a fairly low bar, but Brill might be the filmmaker you’re likeliest to recognize for his work outside the Sandlerverse, which includes directing Heavy Weights, writing The Mighty Ducks, and appearing as an actor in films like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Knocked Up, and Batman Returns (he was a revelation as Gothamite #1). But you don’t get a Sandler Score of 237.75 just from cozying up to Judd Apatow or Steven Soderbergh—this is about The Sandler, and Brill is about that, too.
While Brill has the longest gap without A Sandler of any of the DuCorBri triumvirate, his early involvement is enough to last a lifetime: before he returned to the fold during The Netflix Years, Brill directed Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds and helped with the screenplays of The Wedding Singer and Big Daddy. I will not speculate that their 14 years apart suggests some grand falling out beyond what tends happens to men of a certain age, or the natural attrition that is built into every adult friendship. What’s most important is that Brill is back.
He’s all the way back, in fact, like to the point where he recorded a video message for this year’s SandlerCon:
1. Dennis Dugan
SNR: .57 (8/14 films with Sandler)
VCI: 2,494 miles, Just Go With It
ASC: 36 (18 Razzie, 2 Kids Choice)
Total Score: 291.70
Did you really think this could be anyone else? Even if you are not as up on the DuCorBri experience, it should have been obvious that Dugan’s the one. I could talk about his track record, which is highlighted by him directing more Sandler films (eight) than any other director. I could talk about him directing The Benchwarmers mere years before his son Kelly Dugan became the Phillies’ second-round draft pick in 2009. (Kelly appears to be out of organized baseball this year, but made it as far as Triple-A in 2015.)
I could talk about David Spade shooting a fountain of vomit out of a tire in Shaq’s general direction in Grown-Ups, which is as purely Dugan-ian film vision as any imaginable. I could talk about Dave Matthews’ prescient turn as a white supremacist lunk in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. I could talk about The Dunkaccino musical number, a simultaneous high and low point in Al Pacino’s strange late career. I should probably mention, as Eloy recently pointed out after watching the movie 15 times in the past nine months, that Dugan filmed and released an entirely different version of Jack and Jill for release in Spain, which featured a character and storyline that was not in the U.S. version. “I don’t think I know of another movie that has an additional character and storyline for a different territory,” he says. (Me neither.)
But nothing really distills the Dugan essence, the Sandler essence, the friend essence, quite like this quote that’s been attributed to the director:
“Audiences that go to my movies don’t want a message. They don’t want my soul exposed or my life view. They just want to laugh.”
Sometimes that’s the best kind of friend you could want. The kind of friend you’re most likely to keep around. Sometimes you just want to laugh. Also Dugan is the filmmaker responsible for the Dave Matthews Butt Coconut moment, so this was never really going to be that close.