Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (Photo: A24)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Benny & Josh Safdie
STARS Adam Sandler, Julia Fox
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
The problem isn’t that Adam Sandler can’t act; the problem is that he doesn’t care to act.
For the vast majority of his career, Sandler has been content playing obnoxious dolts in such low-I.Q. fare as Big Daddy, Grown Ups, and Just Go with It. Thanks to his indiscriminate fans, he makes millions from these imbecilic features, so why exert any energy or employ any imagination? (My favorite quote regarding his relationship with his audience comes from Slant’s review of Jack and Jill: “More bluntly than ever before (and that’s saying something), Sandler uses an entire film to let his loyal fans know that he thinks they’re all a bunch of stupid assholes.” But I digress.)
Pair Sandler with a talented director, though, and evidence of his abilities shines through. Paul Thomas Anderson with Punch-Drunk Love, James L. Brooks with Spanglish, Noah Baumbach with The Meyerowitz Stories — these are among the very few filmmakers who have made the actor straighten up and give a damn.
Add to that list Benny and Josh Safdie, the brothers behind Uncut Gems. The Safdies were among the first to reveal to the world that Robert Pattinson really could act — check out the trio’s intense drama from 2017, Good Time (reviewed here) — and here they similarly cast a spotlight on Sandler.
Written and directed by the Safdies (with Ronald Bronstein also serving as a co-scripter, as he did on Good Time), Uncut Gems finds Sandler cast as Howard Ratner, a small-time New York jeweler who tests the patience of practically everyone who meets him. His wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) no longer loves him and wants a divorce; his mistress Julia (photographer, filmmaker, and former Playboy model Julia Fox in an impressive acting debut) loves him but finds his jealous streak to be a major problem.
Howard’s biggest fault, though, might be his gambling addiction, as it has led to him owing a sizable sum to a loan shark who just also happens to be his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). But Howard reasons that his acquisition of an uncut opal straight from an Ethiopian mine will save him, since he plans to sell it at auction for over a million dollars.
Since the bulk of Uncut Gems involves people constantly screaming at each other, jittery moviegoers might want to seek entertainment elsewhere — honestly, the characters’ hostility, accentuated by the up-close-and-personal camerawork by Darius Khondji and the rapid-fire editing by Benny Safdie and Bronstein, works on the nerves as effectively as the shock sequences from any superior horror film. And no one is louder than Sandler’s Howard Ratner, who’s irritating and generally unlikable but, in a few (very few) key scenes, also strangely appealing in the manner of a scrappy underdog taking on the merciless world surrounding him. I’m not on the “Give Adam Sandler an Oscar nomination” bandwagon — I’ve easily seen at least five leading male performances more varied and more interesting, including the one by Pattinson in The Lighthouse (reviewed here) — but he’s certainly up to the task presented to him by the Safdies.
Granted, some might watch Uncut Gems and see the actor merely playing yet another loud-mouth boor, and they would be correct. But in this case, there’s conviction — not to mention an actual character — behind the shouting and the scheming, and that makes all the difference.