Synopsis: A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian
Director: Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I feel like I usually start some of these review posts with “I was too old for” or “This was before my time” but today I get to say that I’m the perfect age to remember when Adam Sandler rose from a popular utility player on Saturday Night Live to a blockbuster movie star. Happening almost by chance if you really think about it, his dimbulb comedies that played on his goofball charms became quotable and rewatchable fluff that made Sandler millions but didn’t exactly endear him to critics. Audiences and studio heads loved him but his movies became 90 minutes to fear for reviewers as the years went on. Truth be told, the quality took a nosedive as well the more Sandler looped in (and relied on) his stable of friends.
Efforts to go straight netted good feedback, like 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and, to a lesser extent 2004’s Spanglish. In these films it was evident that when Sandler took himself seriously there was something more to him than silly Cajun accents and arrested development man-child characters. Yet he always fell back on these easy riffs, making it difficult to figure out what he really wanted to do with his career. A recent multi-million dollar deal with Netflix gave him freedom to create his own projects and the results…haven’t been spectacular. Only a slight caper comedy, Murder Mystery earlier in 2019, had some spring to its step and that was largely due to costar Jennifer Aniston dragging Sandler along.
So why are we back at the tail end of 2019 again talking about Sandler? Well, after gaining considerable attention for his work in 2017’s serio-comic The Meyerowitz Stories with director Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), he’s teamed up with another buzzy director (actually directors) for Uncut Gems and not only has it brought Sandler the best notices of his career but it might just earn him an Oscar nomination. He’s already picked up numerous critical acclaim, a few early awards, and a handful of nominations in upcoming ceremonies but the real test will be if Academy voters can look past the dreck he’s participated in and appreciate what he’s put into his performance here.
Howard Ratner (Sandler, Blended) is in trouble. It’s 2012 and he’s in debt up to his ears. Borrowing money from one person to pay another, his life is in a constant state of motion of over the counter offers and drop in deals where his bad investments and gambling has put a target on his back. Operating as a jeweler in the Diamond District of New York City, he thinks his luck is about to change with his acquisition of an uncut opal just arrived from Africa he plans to put up for auction. Unable to resist showing off his nest egg, when an recruiter (Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out) Howard pays under-the-table snags basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself, admirably) and brings him by to look at some merchandise, Howard lets the opal out of his sight…and that’s when things start to go downhill rapidly.
Balancing an estranged wife (Idina Menzel, Frozen II) and a mistress (Julia Fox) with her own eccentricities and complications, Howard spends the next days tracking his opal while staying ahead of a swarm of the NY loan shark underbelly that have come to collect. His brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian, The Stuff) and his henchmen are ones he’s most wary of, for good reason, and a tense family dinner masks the deadly animosity present between the two men. As the auction draws near and Howard continues to make wrong turns that get him deeper into the dirt, can he right his sinking ship without taking others down with him?
Written and directed by brothers Benny and Joshua Safdie, I suspect audiences will respond to Uncut Gems the way they viewed most of Sandler’s earlier comedies, with a mixture of exasperation and exhilaration…but for different reasons. This is 135 minutes of stress for Howard and, in effect, the viewer as we are sitting right on his shoulder throughout. With an almost voyeuristic nature, we watch as Howard interacts with all manner of people that work around the Diamond District. I’m not sure, but I’d bet many of the people appearing in these scenes actually worked in the stores where the scenes were filmed. There’s an authenticity to the dialogue (it has to have taken the prize for most uses of f**k in 2019) that almost instantly lends credibility to the film and Sandler in particular.
As indicated by the advance notices, Sandler is remarkable. Though playing a character hard to root for because you see him making the wrong turn five blocks ahead of the street sign, there’s a charisma he lends Howard where you can’t totally write him off. A scene late in the film where he explains himself exposes a openness that doesn’t soften him so much as documents the path some vulnerable people take when their self-destruction goes unnoticed for too long. There’s a burden this character carries from the moment we meet him, you can almost see it weighing him down the minute he appears on screen and Sandler keeps that sense of needing to unload right through to the end. It’s real follow through and a mature performance from someone that has peddled so long in immaturity.
In addition to Sandler, there’s several supporting performances of note. I wasn’t familiar with Fox before this film but you can bet she’ll be turning up on Hollywood’s radar after enough people have seen this. Taking what could have been a thankless cliché riddled role and making it far more complex, Fox might first seem intrusive to the proceedings in the first hour (which is intentional, I think) but hold fast, the wait for her usefulness is worth it. On the other side of the wedding ring, Menzel is dynamite as Howard’s annoyed wife who can’t wait to divorce her cheating husband and just wishes she could tell more people about it. Known more for her stage work and voicing the Frozen films, Menzel impresses big time in her first substantial dramatic role in front of the camera.
I don’t think Sandler will have a problem getting critics to see his performance in Uncut Gems but I’m wondering if his longtime fans will turn out to see him put his ribald routine to the side, at least for the moment. (His next film is titled the not-promising Hubie Halloween and is directed by Steven Brill who has been behind the camera for numerous Sandler gigs). He’s amassed a new generation of fans via Netflix, hopefully they’re willing to follow him into this new-ish territory and my wish for Sandler is that he sees how green the grass is on the serious side of the street. Even if he makes a movie like Uncut Gems for every two dumb comedies he makes, I think we’ll have made some progress.