DIRECTED BY: BENNY SAFDIE AND JOSH SAFDIE/2019
The Safdie Brothers are hardly going to be defined as conventional. With their previous film, Good Time, they turned a heist film into a brilliant mix of organized chaos with subversive commentary on race and socioeconomics, giving star Robert Pattinson a chance to truly shine in a way that allowed him to throw off the shackles of the Twilight franchise which had pigeon-holed him into a typecast from which he might not have otherwise recovered from. With the Safdie Brothers latest film, Uncut Gems, would they be able to do the same for Adam Sandler?
Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a New York jeweler who is neck deep in debt, is despised by his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), and who has found himself a possibly lucrative way out of his predicament. Having just procured a black opal from Ethiopia, he shows it off to NBA-star Kevin Garnett (who plays a fictionalized version of himself), who is in Howard’s shop after being brought by Howard’s business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Garnett is drawn to this gem and demands to have it to bring him luck in his upcoming games. Howard agrees to let him have it, taking Garnett’s championship ring as collateral. Instead of patiently waiting for Garnett to agree to buying the opal, Howard uses the value of Garnett’s championship ring to place some extremely high risk bets, placing him in even greater danger with those he owes.
Like Good Time, Uncut Gems is a film that seeks to push the viewer to the absolute edge. Good Time was about pure organized chaos but Uncut Gems takes that to completely new levels. Just when you think the pressure mounting on Howard couldn’t get any higher, the self-inflicted wounds he inflicts from his poor choices just continue to grow expediently. The people who despise him the most, which is nearly everyone, see Howard’s addictions for what they are, and are the ones most affected by his decisions. This includes his wife, his children, his family, and his business assistant. His mistress Julia (Julia Fox), while seeming to be a calming presence in his life, is someone who tends to feed his worst compulsions. She benefits from the high rewards his high risks have earned him, as she lives in a nice apartment he pays for, but her encouragement of him feeds the worst in him.
Sandler is absolutely brilliant in this role. This is single-handily the best performance Sandler has ever given on screen, overshadowing his amazing work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. He is simply mesmerizing in this performance and will cause the audience to not be able to look away for one second. His 3-ring circus of a life is one of constant movement, but Sandler keeps all of Howard Ratman’s plates spinning, until every wrong decision he has ever made comes to an unavoidable head, threatening to bring these plates crashing to the ground.
Like the opening sequence of the film that follows the brilliance of the black opal as the camera moves into the micro-aspects of the gem, until it merges into a cut scene of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, this film seems to follow the same trajectory. Howard’s life, like the opal, could be one of untapped beauty and success, but given his addictions to gambling, chaos, and self-absorption, it all is bound to become the very stuff that moves through the colon we were shown in the beginning. This isn’t a film about the dangers of addiction and the like, nor is it a cautionary tale. This is simply a look at one man’s story, and the natural consequences that come with this lifestyle and choices.
While it may not be the most conventional Christmas release, filled with inspiration, or spectacle, it does provide one of the best performances of the year. Sandler could very well be holding Oscar gold for this performance, allowing him to throw off the shackles of his own chosen typecasting that has followed him throughout his career, based on the type of films he enjoys making with his friends. While I have no doubt that we will see some more silly films (many that I love) pop up on screen or on Netflix (given his deal with them), this performance shows what Sandler can do when he works with good directors, and gives himself over to the role. For example, there is a whole scene of Sandler watching a basketball game that is one of the most compelling and tense scenes of the year.
Adam Sandler may have started off his film career hallucinating and seeing a giant penguin, or dispensing high-quality H2O, but over time we have seen glimpses of his true potential. Films like Punch Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign O’er Me, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), have teased audiences with the talent Sandler possesses. With Uncut Gems, we get to see it in full force and that’s something we could all use more of. For the Safdie Brothers, Uncut Gems is another unconventional Good Time!