Think 'Punch-Drunk Love' and not 'Little Nicky'
“Meh. Not into Adam Sandler. Kinda hate that guy.”
That was a friend’s response to me trying to convince him to see “Uncut Gems.” And let me just say, I see you.
Sandler’s career has been a frustration for me. He went from a scene-stealer on "Saturday Night Live" to star of some solidly silly lowbrow comedies before leaning into the lowbrow and lazily cranking out duds for endless paychecks.
It’s been 18 years since I thought he might take a different path following his remarkable turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” And, with a few dramatic exceptions, it’s been 18 years of more of the same. Yet here we are. The same year Sandler released “Murder Mystery” on Netflix, he’s getting Oscar buzz.
Well, it’s more than deserved. “Uncut Gems” is the performance of Sandler’s career, easily.
But “Gems” isn’t just a showcase for a great performance. Writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie follow their extraordinary debut, “Good Time,” with a masterclass in tension and one 2019’s very best films.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a brash and charismatic New York jeweler. He’s a shady character surrounded by shady characters.
He’s also compounding gambling debts the only way a gambling addict knows how: through increasingly high-stakes bets.
When he manages to import a rare black opal from an African mine, Howard thinks he has the collateral for the bet of a lifetime.
Then things spin out of control.
With “Good Time,” the Safdie brothers told a similar story of a man’s life getting ever more precarious, centered on a fantastic performance by Robert Pattinson.
With “Uncut Gems,” they manage to turn up the anxiety to the point of boiling over, and they make the whole thing immensely watchable in the near-total absence of empathetic characters.
Sandler’s Howard is a father of two who also has an apartment for his mistress (a breakout Julia Fox). His obsession with a glitzy life and securing the big score make him a character for which you rarely actively root.
But Sandler does something special with this performance, exaggerating some of his more obnoxious tendencies for added effect, while also showcasing a rangy performance that’s explosive and emotional.
It may be best that the audience doesn’t connect too deeply with Howard, as the tension of “Uncut Gems” is pure and nearly unbearable.
The twists and turns of “Uncut Gems” are best left untold, but it’s a devastating experience. It shows an actor tapping into unexpected depths and establishes the Safdies as true auteurs.
In a year full of great crime dramas, my ranking of “Uncut Gems” means they out-Scorsesed Martin Scorsese and out-Tarantinoed Quentin Tarantino.
Go see this now.