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Spaceman Confirms That Adam Sandler Does Drama Just as Well as Comedy TIME

Adam Sandler as Jakub in Spaceman.

No young actor should rush toward middle age. But those who are nervous about it should look to Adam Sandler for inspiration. Sandler built his career playing sweet-natured dim-bulb misfits who ultimately gain acceptance from those who’d previously rejected them. His stand-up comedy built on a similar meek, underdog vibe, as evidenced by one of his trademark gags, in which he naively strums a guitar while warbling an ode to Thanksgiving in a shaky schoolboy voice.

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Sandler could, maybe, keep that shtick going forever. But his more serious acting roles—in movies like Hustle, or The Meyerowitz Stories—suggest that he’s reaching toward something more, perhaps wanting to shake something up in himself as he ages. In the hushed science-fiction drama Spaceman, on Netflix, he plays a Czech astronaut, Jakub, on a mission that has taken him thousands of miles away from Earth, but perhaps even further away, metaphorically, from his pregnant wife, Carey Mulligan’s Lenka. Directed by Johan Renck and adapted from Jaroslav Kalfar’s novel Spaceman of Bohemia, it lifts off from a promising premise only to wobble out of orbit in the finish—but even so, it’s satisfying to watch these actors at work, fully committed to the strange, alienating world their characters are stuck in.

Jakub has been in space for six months, having set out to investigate a mysterious purple cloud that has been hanging in the sky for four years. His space cabin is the opposite of luxurious: the toilet apparatus doesn’t work correctly; his big treat is spooning a Nutella-like snack out of a jar. But those are minor annoyances compared with the agony whirring in his brain: he hasn’t heard from Lenka in ages, and he has no idea what that means.

He doesn’t yet know, as we do, that she’s decided to leave him. (She retreats to the home of her mother, played by Lena Olin, a mother-daughter matchup that’s a marvel of casting, not just because these two physically resemble one another, but because their deep, sonorous voices vibe with one another.) She’s sent a recorded message to Jakub telling him as much, but the astro-officials (led by Isabella Rossellini’s icy-efficient Commissioner Tuma) have intercepted the message, not wanting to risk the mission by upsetting Jakub. Meanwhile, though, locked away with his solitary anxieties, he’s suffering plenty—and when a hairy, six-eyed oversized arachnid shows up in his capsule, speaking to him in a soothing, silky voice, he’s forced to reckon with both his past (his father was a Communist informant, a man who, as Jakub explains, did the wrong thing for reasons he believed in) and his own complicated present, in the form of a partner who feels abandoned, and not just because she’s been physically left behind on Earth.

Adam Sandler as Jakub and Carey Mulligan as Lenka in Spaceman

This otherworldly spider creature has no name, so Jakub gives him one: Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) may actually exist or he may be an invention of Jakub’s subconscious. Either way, he’s a heavy-duty metaphor for the powers of psychotherapy. (Though when he’s gone as far as he can to help Jakub understand his own psyche, he purrs, “My interest in you has expired,” something no therapist would ever say—one hopes.) The filmmaking in Spaceman has a chilly elegance. Jakub is forced to confront painful memories, chiefly involving his relationship with Lenka, when they pop up unbidden on a screen in his capsule: the edges of the image are distorted and blurry, as if being beamed through a blurry lens from his own brain.

Read more: What’s the Most Realistic Movie About Space? Here’s What 8 Movies Got Right—and Wrong

But the novelty of Hanus’ presence wears off some two-thirds through Spaceman, and once you’ve fully grasped the central issue (Jakub’s big problem is that he’s been emotionally withholding and too eager to put his space career above everything else), you might start fumbling for the escape hatch. Still, these actors give you reason to keep going. Mulligan does a lot with a smallish role—Lenka’s anguished loneliness feels wholly lived-in. Jakub feels similar anguish and loneliness, but for different reasons: he’s the guilty party here, and Sandler conveys that emerging self-knowledge with jittery grace. He looks pale and undernourished; the circles under his eyes are shadowy markers of six months’ worth of poor sleep.

In performance, comedians are big on oversharing, standing before an audience and putting their weird thought processes on display. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that Sandler is turning out to be such an engaging dramatic actor. In Jakub, you see a guy who’s potentially charming and likable, but too emotionally locked up to reach out to those who need him. Sandler has never had any trouble letting his inner goofball have free rein. But he’s just as good at playing a man who bottles every feeling to the point of bursting. It’s one thing to dole out the happy pills that make an audience love you and another to earn their trust minute by minute. Sandler, it turns out, knows how to do both.

Stephanie Zacharek

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