Adam Sandler is a comedian whose film slate has been often ranked near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to cinematic entertainment in recent years, but when he branches out into dramatic territory, he turns in an unforgettable performance. Sandler turns in what’s arguably his career-best work as an actor in Uncut Gems, which is also a career-best film from Josh and Benny Safdie thanks to the evolution of their filmmaking craft, strong performances from Sandler and the entire ensemble, and a realistic portrayal of New York City nightlife.
Adam Sandler plays a jeweler with a lot on his plate and wealth on his mind in the newest A24 drama from Josh and Benny Safdie.
Actors stepping outside of their comfort zone to play roles against type is always an eye-catching development in the film industry, such as when Jim Carrey took starring roles in cerebral dramas like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while after reprising his role as Brick Tamblin in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Steve Carell had his most successful turn for the straight-up dramatic as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2015.
Another actor who could have similar fortune in taking a turn for the dramatic this award season is Adam Sandler. Since his big break in the 90s with hilarious films such as Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, he’s been coasting on less-than-stellar gross-out fare like the Grown Ups movies and Jack and Jill, all of which are produced through his own company, Happy Madison. Sporadically, though, he’s taken a dramatic role and demonstrated remarkable acting range in films like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me and The Meyerowitz Stories.
Stepping outside of his comfort zone could prove to bring him the biggest Oscar season success of his career this winter in Uncut Gems, the newest film from the Safdie Brothers set in contemporary New York City, which is one of the most exciting and intense dramas of the winter season thanks to great performances from Sandler and the ensemble cast, a pulsing score, and an immersive, chaotic world that the Safdie brothers created with expert direction.
In Uncut Gems, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a charismatic jeweler who’s always looking for the next big score and goes to incredible lengths to obtain it, whether it be through buying jewels from athletes just to pawn them off, or placing ridiculous bets on sporting events. Sure enough, the next big score arrives in the form of a vibrant, shimmering jewel chiseled from a mine in Ethiopia, and its mysterious, cosmic beauty attracts the attention of Kevin Garnett (who is playing himself here) and his right-hand man Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Garnett demands that he take the jewel out of the belief it will help him excel in his pursuits as a player on the Boston Celtics.
Ratner agrees to let him borrow the jewel with rewarding effects for Garnett, but when he doesn’t get it back when he wants it, what follows is a chaotic odyssey to not only retrieve the jewel himself, but also evade menacing, violent loan sharks led by Phil (Keith Williams Richards), who demands he pay back an unknown but large sum of money, save his marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) from collapsing, and continually please his woman on the side in co-worker Julia (Julia Fox), with all sides growing more and more impatient and vicious with Howard as he fails to fully deliver on his promises, making all kinds of lies and excuses to cover himself along the way.
And Howard’s rollercoaster of a journey is always compelling thanks to Sandler’s tremendous lead performance. Howard is a man whose body literally runs on wealth and status as an elite social standing, and Sandler conveys his desire to retain it with a thick New York accent and intense line deliveries, such as a moment where Howard finds himself kidnapped by loan sharks in a moving car, along with a fast cadence in the film’s opening scene where he’s having three conversations at once. It’s easy to find Howard unlikable for his tendency to keep himself in hot water no matter what decision he makes, yet, audiences will want to see him absolve himself of every debt and strife thanks to his affectionate side which Sandler depicts with pitch-perfect naturalism in the film’s most intimate, private moments.
Meanwhile, the Safdies continue to perfect their style as directors by implementing the gritty aesthetic they used in Good Time, but evolving their look further with steady wide shots that not only isolate Howard on the courtyards of hotels and the hallways of his jewelry store, but also leave the audience to wonder who is watching him at this moment in the film. These are often juxtaposed with tight, handheld closeups that only emphasize the havoc of Howard’s life and his violent encounters in the clubs and on the streets of urban New York life.
What’s also worth mentioning is the pulsing music from Daniel Lopatin; after scoring the Safdie’s previous film with pulsing synthesizers under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never, Lopatin evolves his craft as a musician by pairing his fast-paced electronic sounds with tribal music that emphasizes Howard’s pursuit for the gem and wealth as a whole that ramps up the suspense and commotion of all his encounters.
Together, the visual and aural styles of Uncut Gems create a veritable vision of Howard’s bustling life in New York City that boasts intimate moments with his family and Julia, albeit those come in sporadic bursts as Howard strides from them to his frenetic jewelry store and New York nightclubs down streets packed with people. It works at being very immersive because one thinks they’re right there with Howard amongst the furor, and yet, it’s also a detriment because the overlapping conversations and rapid editing both make at least the opening scene difficult to comprehend.
But the story of Uncut Gems gets easier to follow once Garnett’s entourage visits Howard’s store and from there, it’s undemanding to get a grasp on Howard as a character. He wants to be a bigger shot than any of the elites in The City That Never Sleeps, and his pursuit for that status with a clear name is engaging to watch play out once Howard sets eyes on his biggest score for the first time. Audiences will be riveted by Sandler’s commanding performance and the film’s authentic depiction of modern-day New York City, where the streets are busy and the lives of its wealthy citizens are akin to the jungles from which Howard’s diamonds are discovered. In Howard’s line of work, the uncut gems are the ones most valuable, and in a holiday season that’s ending 2019 in film on a strong note, one of its strongest dramas is Uncut Gems.