Adam Sandler has proven himself time and again to be excellent when he steps out of his usual lowbrow comedy schtick and into more serious dramatic work. From the angry awkwardness of his character in Punch Drunk Love to his compelling father figure in The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler has worked with multiple dramatic directors who find ways to utilize the actor’s comedic onscreen persona in ways that feel just right and allow him a chance to prove his talents.
Now, the writing/directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie (who brought us the electric Good Time last year) have given the actor his most compelling dramatic role to date with Uncut Gems. And the Sandman is more than up to the task, turning in a possibly career-best performance as a New York City jeweler whose persistent gambling addiction gets him in a whole lot of trouble with the people he owes. The film is also very, very good at what it sets out to do: namely, give you 135 minutes of artfully constructed chaos, while also being a surprisingly human character study of a man who’s always looking for the bigger score.
From our very first introduction to Howard Ratner (Sandler), he’s already being tailed by two very frustrated men (Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik) who are impatiently waiting for him to pay his debts. We also learn that Howard is on the last leg of his marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel), who knows he’s having relations with his coworker, Julia (Julia Fox, terrific in her first film role). His life is on the verge of completely falling apart from the moment we meet him.
When basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (as himself) is brought to Howie’s jewelry store by the jeweler’s business partner, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard is eager to show Garnett his latest delivery: an extremely valuable opal excavated from a cave in Ethiopia. Entranced by the gem, Garnett wants to borrow it as a good luck charm for his game. This sets Howard on a series of risky decisions and bets, as he buries himself deeper and deeper in an incessant desire to win big. It’s basically “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???: The Movie.”
That fake title does make Uncut Gems sound like a frustrating experience to sit through, and the film is most definitely anxiety-inducing by design. But the key component that really makes the film riveting is Sandler. In theory, Howard should be the most unlikable and disengaging protagonist to center a film around. His baffling refusal to settle for the simple solutions to his problems could be an absolute turn-off for the easily rattled.
And yet, because it is Adam Sandler, there is this every-man, underdog relatability that he brings to the character. Even when he’s royally messing up, the irritation on our end is accompanied by a desperate plea for him to just do something right, for once. We are simultaneously frustrated with him and rooting for him. It’s a real high-wire act of a character depiction, and Sandler (along with the screenplay, written by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein) keep Howard balanced between maddening and engaging all the way through. They make us understand why a man like Howard would make the decisions he makes.
Sandler keeps us invested until the end with his captivating performance, in which he takes a lot of the awkwardness and manic energy of his previous work and funnels it into a much more grounded individual. His desperation needs to be felt on a very human level for us to have any emotional investment in Uncut Gems, and Sandler excels at selling that desperation. It’s one of those roles, where it’s impossible to see anyone else playing the character but him (which makes sense, as it’s been said that the Safdies have been wanting him for the role since the film’s inception).
The Safdie brothers are able to get terrific performances out of their entire supporting cast, which is comprised of both veteran actors and jewelers off the streets of New York, specifically the Diamond District. You have character actors like Lakeith Stanfield, whose performance feels seemingly effortless in his ability to slip into the character. And then you have other integral supporting characters who are played by first-time actors.
Julia Fox and Kevin Garnett especially impress, both of whom give performances that feel authentic and real, with no hint of the fact that they’ve never acted before. Keith Williams Richards, also an acting newcomer, provides a very intimidating foil for Howard and serves as one of the key forces that comes down on him for his debts; every time he’s onscreen, he carries a rage that earns the film a lot of its stressful moments.
The use of actual jewelers in the film is just one of the ways Uncut Gems attains a very lived-in world. The Safdies capture the chaotic nature of the story and setting of their film, through overlapping dialogue and a very mobile camera that frequently gets up close to characters and increases the uncomfortability of every tense scenario. Daniel Lopatin’s striking score is also quite different from his score for Good Time, this time offering a more percussive complement to the hustle-and-bustle and using a recurring choir chant to great effect. It makes Uncut Gems feel much bigger than the relatively small-scale story that it’s telling.
Uncut Gems may be a little too long for its own good, with a few lulls and beats that may test one’s patience if they’re not invested from scene one. But it’s undeniable that the Safdie brothers have created one of the more distinct films of the year. They’ve mastered their art of nerve-shredding cinema, and they’ve given Adam Sandler a career-defining role that the actor embodies like only he could. This is one that should not be missed.
Uncut Gems is rated R, and it’s now playing in theaters.
*All images courtesy of A24