Adam Sandler is such a morally unkempt, familiarly uncouth and determinedly unkillable livewire of shameless intention in the adrenaline rush of “Uncut Gems” that watching him in Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film doesn’t involve seeing an actor strut about and say their lines so much as observing a star on the verge of bursting into supernova.
And as Sandler’s pernicious Jewish jeweler Howard Ratner goes, so do the Safdies and their movie. “Uncut Gems” – a grand showcase of acting, and also of the Safdies’ cosmic filmmaking sensibilities – swells when Howard swells, spirals when he spirals and takes a breath when he takes a breath (which, if I recall, is practically never). As with Robert Pattinson in the Safdies’ 2017 breakout “Good Time,” Sandler’s performance and the movie itself are impossible to scrutinize on separate terms. A scant few other films in 2019 have had a similar kind of deeply-anchored performance—among them Elisabeth Moss in “Her Smell," Lupita Nyong'o in "Us" and Jessie Buckley in "Wild Rose."
It may very well be a career-defining performance for Sandman, but it’s worth parsing out what exactly that means for someone whose filmography is enshrined in memes and reaction gifs, and not necessarily conversations of the prestige. He’s funny in “Uncut Gems,” yes, but he’s also sly, desperate, conniving, heady, frightening, intelligent, self-made, self-actualizing—things we haven’t seen from him before, or otherwise not when reflected through the Safdie cinematic wavelength, which tends to evolve actors into something unrecognizable and undeniable, too. Saying this is a career-best performance for Sandler is like saying the Black-Eyed Peas have produced a career-best album made up of classic orchestral works—there’s value in what came before and what is now, if for different audiences. The same goes for Sandler, whose Howard Ratner has nothing in common with Billy Madison or Bobby Boucher save for that goofy grin and penchant for recklessness. It was just a few months ago that he relied on those characteristics in Netflix's forgettable "Murder Mystery."
But maybe I'm not giving Sandler enough credit. For every two or three movies in which he plays vaguely dissimilar versions of the same character, there’s a Paul Thomas Anderson or Noah Baumbach collaboration that brings a new attentiveness to the fore of a dramatic performance. And I remain rather fond of Sandler’s deep-reaching turn in Mike Binder’s 2007 drama “Reign Over Me” as a destitute New Yorker reeling from the loss of his family in 9/11 (the performance has aged better than the premise). If you watch that film through a certain lens, Sandler’s Charlie Fineman is the logical continuation of earlier characters he played, the ones who approach rules as guidelines better left ignored.
What remains distinct and emancipating about his “Uncut Gems” performance, then, is Sandler playing a character who makes choice after choice after reckless choice that everyone around him must contend with, instead of him playing the part of reactionary. Brought to life by Sandler with dubious conviction and mannerisms that make it seem like the actor took a 5-Hour Energy between each take, Howard adheres to his own code of conduct created to maximize the payoffs of his gambles (Spoiler: His record isn't perfect). The two primary pillars to that code: Don’t take the easy out, and winning isn’t winning unless you’re beating the highest of odds (this may as well be the slogan for Sandler’s ongoing campaign for a Best Actor Academy Award nod, which would be his first).
What’s the movie actually about, you ask? It seems inevitable that that will eventually overtake Sandler’s gung-ho performance as the conversation surrounding “Uncut Gems,” and the movie feels destined to produce some grand insights leaning into its relationship between buyer and seller, traders and barters, as well as the oft-returned to element of Jewish identity.
On the surface, though, the plot the Safdies have whipped up is simple: Howard must balance a dilapidated home life and deteriorating debt situation with addictive gambling impulses that are never satisfied, including a precarious series of professional and personal bets fueled by a climactic magnitude. Even Danny Ocean may tell Howard to relax on his aspirations.
It’s the overlapping of other forces at play in “Uncut Gems” that give it its fervor and, in the film's best stretches, an unparalleled sensation of movie-as-panic-attack—most notably, Idina Menzel as Howard’s fed-up wife, Dinah; Julia Fox in a breakout role as Howard’s employee and mistress, Julia; and a surprisingly effective turn from Kevin Garnett playing a pre-retirement version of himself that gets caught up in Howards’s web of compulsiveness.
The Safdie Brothers are excellent about shaping situations they can navigate with narrative precision, and which also play into their chaotic and psychedelic sensibilities, while still keeping audiences too anxious to think three steps ahead. “Uncut Gems” doesn’t reach the breath-snatching heights of “Good Time” – which is practically an exercise in maintaining a propulsive zenith for two hours – but Daniel Lopatin’s miles-a-minute score often finds devilish and delicious harmony with the frantic editing of Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie. When’s the last time a movie coherently elevated the stakes of an auction scene with each passing second?
Alex Ross Perry’s maniacally-crafted “Her Smell” and the emotional earthquake that is the first act of Trey Edward Shults’s “Waves” are two 2019 movies that have lingered on my mind as more thorough blends of character and rollercoaster filmmaking than the Safdies’ effort, right down to those movies' quieter moments. In “Uncut Gems,” how Howard will continue to squeeze through a black hole of capitalistic fervor never feels as important to the Safdies as what will happen if and when he gets stuck. Like the mined mass of rough African opal that Howard boastfully waves around, his drive is raw, unfiltered and unglamorous in its current state—for better and for worse.
These aren’t fatal flaws for “Uncut Gems,” undoubtedly one of the year’s singular movie-going experiences—perhaps more so a personal lament that the Safdies’ stick-the-viewer-in-a-blender style of direction doesn’t come equipped with an extra shot of pathos for Howard, even as its cold-blooded conclusion feels like the only possible way this story could have ended. The film has already grown in my estimation since leaving the theater; I just wish a few more of its punches had bruised me as Sandler’s supernova reaches the point of explosion.
"Uncut Gems" is rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie
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