Uncut Gems is the type of film I anticipate and yet often let fall beneath the cracks longer than intended. The 2019 drama crime thriller film was directed by the Safdie brothers from a screenplay written by Ronald Bronstein. Other films they have created have often been well received, but they have not yet been reviewed on Mashers Club. What I think drew my attention and a lot of other people’s attention was the casting of Adam Sandler.
Adam Sandler is a very prolific comedic actor and one of the most successful at the genre. In the 90s, his comedy forays brought him success with films like The Waterboy, Big Daddy, and The Wedding Singer, and in the 2000s, that success only continued with films like 50 First Dates and Click. Thereafter, I think, has been especially problematic for him. You see, Adam Sandler has never been taken very seriously as an actor. In spite his efforts in films like Reign Over Me and Punch-Drunk Love, his films like Pixels, Grown Ups, and Jack and Jill are often what he is associated with. I think I like Adam Sandler, but he can be a frustrating artist to root for. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Funny People, I especially disliked The Ridiculous Six. His filmography can often resemble a broken clock, only righting itself every once in a while.
Uncut Gems was released to critical acclaim with a wide release by A24 and global distribution through Netflix. The film was held in high-regard, especially singled-out for Adam Sandler’s portrayal of the leading protagonist. The film became the highest-grossing film domestically for A24 by the time the dust settled and was even an Academy Award contender. Unfortunately, Uncut Gems received neither an Oscar nomination nor even Golden Globe recognition. For the Globes, I believe it might have been more of a technical snafu (the Golden Globes nominations were unveiled before the film’s domestic release. Obviously, they still could have seen the film, but I think it increased chances of an oversight), whereas I have heard a lot of rumors and controversies about why Sandler and company were snubbed for the Oscars (that Sandler’s threat to make a very bad film if he does not receive an Oscar was perceived as arrogant or that his previous track record was factored in). Who cares though?
Uncut Gems sees Adam Sandler play a man named Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweler with a gambling addiction. Calling it merely a gambling addiction, in-fact, feels like it does not do justice to the man. This man is crazy unhinged and every move he makes is more self-sabotaging than the last.
This is something that this film captures very well. Every shot feels kinetic and like it has forward momentum, whereas the cinematography and cosmic visuals induce an adrenaline rush and anxiety to the film that feels very accomplished.
Adam Sandler disappears in his performance as Howard Ratner in a way the actor has never accomplished so effectively prior. Even in a film like Funny People, which showcases a range of emotions like loneliness and depression and bitterness, all of it, while portrayed well, usually felt like it was Adam Sandler himself tackling them. This film feels very much like a newly realized character and it makes for the best performance of Adam Sandler’s career.
The film shows the character sabotaging himself and ripping his family apart in his own compulsions.
Howard owes $100,000 to his brother-in-law Arno, a loan-shark. Meanwhile, he and his wife are bracing for a divorce after Passover. I tell you this as a way to contextualize how already deep the hole has been dug for him. Howard as a business associate who introduces him to basketball star Kevin Garnett. Howard has a rare Ethiopian black opal that Kevin Garnett fancies and insists on holding onto it for good luck at his game that night. Howard agrees and accepts Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral. The very second Garnett accepts, Howard pawns the ring and bets money that Garnett will do well. This is but one of many ways that the Howard character’s destructive behavior is on display.
The character is one that is almost uncomfortable to watch, and, by the time the credits roll, the culmination of the story feels like all that momentum met with a brick-wall. Part of the film’s charm (if you can call it that, “horrors” may be more appropriate) is trying to discover all the many ways Howard could dig himself out, and then, watching as he ignores them in-favor of using the shovel again. He can’t help himself. “This is how I win!” He declares with such righteousness and commitment to his own addiction. He is an unpredictable character with nuances and complexities to his portrayal. It feels like Adam Sandler should in a bit over his depth, but he is not. He swims and makes it feel seamless.
This is mostly a film for Adam Sandler to lead the way for, but it is complimented by commendable performances like Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett himself, Idina Menzel, and Eric Bogosian. Their delivery and especially their actions against Howard Ratner play a significant part in the narrative as it unfolds.
I really enjoyed the film. I did not necessarily know what to expect when I watched it, but I had a general expectation of it. That said, I think it really surpassed that expectation. The film reminds me of a Martin Scorsese film in some respects (one scene especially makes me think of The Departed – you’ll know the one when you have seen it) and I consider that a compliment of the utmost caliber as well. I highly recommend it. I look forward to more from the directors and hope to see more work like this from Sandler in the future.
Placement on the List: – The Greats