Directors: Josh & Bennie Safdie Starring: Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield Running Time: 135 minutes
With a career littered by the likes of The Waterboy, Billy Madison, and Happy Gilmore, it’s fair to say that Adam Sandler isn’t a name that’s been synonymous with the Awards season in film. It’s never been the case that lowbrow slapstick comedies have been the only thing that Sandler could come up with, but such films seem to be his career’s signature. There are parts of this that have always been endearing to me- for example, his loyal tendency to give his close friends consistent work, even through (at times) offensively rubbish pieces like Grown Ups 2. Notwithstanding this likable fidelity, Sandler has far too often had his name attached to horrendous, Golden Raspberry bait, with 2011’s Jack and Jill being a notable lowlight.
But hey, why all the fuss about Adam Sandler? Surely there are many other actors who knowingly make films that they themselves know are nothing short of embarrassing, adding only to the overcrowded litter tray of sub 20% Rotten Tomatoes ranked flicks? Well, maybe it’s because he’s so prolific, and maybe it’s because lots of Millennials used to like his films when they were preteens in the 90’s, only having grown up to realise that their once on-screen comedic god was really just turning out disposable sophomoric jokes to reap in the cash from audiences that he obviously held some contempt for.
But there’s another reason why perhaps so much of this vitriol is directed in particular towards Sandler. It’s because deep down, there’s recognisable talent. Behind the slapstick comedies, there’s a committed and capable screen actor that on his day, can compete with the best of them. He doesn’t give glimpses of this often, but when he does, it’s brilliant to watch. Punch Drunk Love is the shining example of this, with expert director Paul Thomas Anderson guiding a critically acclaimed performance from Sandler alongside an equally impressive Emily Watson. Other performances in films like Spanglish, Funny People, and Rain Over Me didn’t quite reach those heights, but provided further evidence that there was more to offer from the Sandman.
Uncut Gems is another example- perhaps the most shiny- of what can be achieved when Sandler works under capable filmmakers. The young brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie direct, fresh off the success of Good Time in 2017. What Good Time demonstrated was that the Safdie brothers are adept in making anxiety inducing cinema, and that they also might have a good eye for picking out surprisingly fitting cast members. A dyed haired Robert Pattinson stole the show in Good Time, alongside stellar performances by Bennie Safdie and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Both of these Safdie trends are developed through Uncut Gems.
Howard Ratner is a skittish but charismatic jeweler in the heart of New York City’s diamond district. A gambling addict, Ratner comes off as someone who’s constantly distracted by the promising and undiscovered potential of the next big score. He’s constantly on the lookout, and this has already led to some conflict with associates and competitors. He mediates the relationships around him, trying to calm people down by assuring them that he’ll take care of them in the next quid pro quo. In this way, the Safdie brothers position the protagonist as someone who sees himself as somewhat of a visionary in his own mind. He has an assurance and certainty that the next big win will insulate him from the demons currently chasing him. It doesn’t seem like a way that anybody would want to live, but Ratner seems to revel in it.
A valuable Ethiopian gem makes its way into the doors of Howard’s store, and this presents him with a chance to craft the ultimate big buck deal. Proudly showing off the new gem to high profile customers in his store, we get a sense of Howard’s vanity and complacency that we suspect might one day catch up with him. Howard loses the gem, and the rest of the narrative is structured around him retrieving it, and offloading it in a way that can make the most profitable return. Of course, it’s not that simple, with Howard having to manage and delicately balance the fractured family and business relationships that he’s gotten himself into.
Uncut Gems is impressive on a number of fronts. The main achievement is how well it unsettles the viewer. You find yourself invested in how things will work out for Howard. Although there are many reasons not to like the protagonist, it’s easy to see how you could be rooting for him, and just want him to get the gem back and do what he has to do with it, if only to end the anxiety building up for the viewer, and to get back to a sense of normality. Already steeped in the frantic environment of New York City, Howard’s complicated and tense relationships are decorated by superb casting and near flawless performances all round. It’s all believable, and convincing. This is especially helped by the fact that characters often talk over each other, with nobody quite managing to get a word in edgewise. You find yourself wanting everyone to just shut up so Howard can explain to them how it will all work out. One scene in particular involving a reinforced door that won’t work, is a stand out in this regard.
It plays with your emotions, but never rests too long to allow you the misguided assumption that the drama is over. It does eventually come to a halt, and there are twists and turns along the way. By the time the climax arrives, you may or may not have seen it coming, but it’s certainly a bumpy rollercoaster of a plot that leads up to the finale.
There are some aspects of the film that I didn’t quite warm to. I think the soundtrack really fails to add to the anxiety. The slickly cut trailer did so extremely well, and I didn’t find that was replicated to the final film. This is not just important for me on a personal level, but I feel that music is imperative when stoking on screen tension, and it just doesn’t make the cut in this way. I also think that there are too many relationships that Howard has to manage, making it more difficult to develop any of them properly. Maybe that’s not the point of Uncut Gems, but I think it takes away from the emotional investment that it ultimately demands.
All things considered, it’s definitely worth a viewing, preferably while it’s still on the big screen. Netflix (from this Friday January 31st) just won’t have the same impact that the Safdie Brothers have created here. As for Adam Sandler, it’s a disappointing snub from the major awards, but he can, and should, be very proud of this gem of a performance.(4 / 5)