Adam Sandler is a likable guy. I don’t know why. I avoid nearly every movie he’s in — usually, tepid broad comedies, always playing up the signature appeal that’s been his brand since Saturday Night Live. Sandler has gotten serious on us before, flexing dramatic muscles in films like Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Spanglish (2004), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017). While those were more meditative roles than, say, Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, they still traded on his man-child doofiness — the grown-up versions of the characters he plays in his comedies.
Adam Sandler has never been gritty.
In Uncut Gems, he plays Howard Ratner — who, on paper, is a real schmuck. He lies, he schemes, he causes a scene everywhere he goes, he’s cheating on his wife — and, well, writing down Howard’s every amoral, self-serving, or uncouth act in Uncut Gems would probably take longer than watching the film. This guy would be insufferable in almost any other actor’s hands — played by Paul Giamatti, Joaquin Phoenix, or Daniel Day-Lewis, he’d be a real prick. Even George Clooney probably couldn’t make Ratner likable. Slick and smooth? Yes. But not charming.
Adam Sandler can.
Sandler’s casting is crucial to Uncut Gems — it’s impossible to imagine it as he same movie with any other lead. Sandler’s inherent goofiness makes it awfully hard to hate Howard, though the character tests that at every turn. We wince, we cringe, we realize that everything he’s done is despicable and self-sabotaging — and yet we still want him to get away with it.
We can’t help it. We like him.Howard Ratner is working toward a divorce with his fed-up wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel). He’s hot and cold with his doting mistress, Julia (Julia Fox). He’s not a very devoted father. He’s constantly sweet-talking his way in and out of deals — and you can just tell that behind his dopey grin and puppy dog eyes, he’s screwing you. But because Adam Sandler is playing him, we understand how he’s been able to string all these people along. No matter how much of a fuck up Adam Sandler is, we always believe him when he says he wants to do better, and that he’s going to try. That’s the role he’s played in movies for more than two decades — the guy who’s going to fall short of delivering on his promises. The guy we’re going to give another shot to anyway, and at least hope he gets it right next time.
Uncut Gems follows Howard through a dizzying labyrinth of get-rich-quick schemes. It would take thousands of words just to cover the twists and turns, to log every reversal of fortune we experience along with Howard. Fate seems to have it out for Howard this week, but every time he narrowly escapes from some pitfall, he digs a brand new hole for himself. It’s excruciating to spend two hours alongside Howard Ratner, who has so many opportunities to come out just barely ahead, only to squander them again and again in favor of a jackpot. Howard is a gambling addict, but he never seems to know when he’s won, because he immediately jettisons any good fortune that comes his way in favor of winning bigger. Watching Uncut Gems is like sitting next to a poker player who’s constantly betting everything he’s got, and playing very badly all the while. You desperately hope that after every round, he’ll call it a day and go home. But he doesn’t, does he?
Uncut Gems isn’t exactly a thriller — some tough guys show up every now and then to collect money owed to them, but Howard has the ability to solve the problem a half-dozen times, at least. He just doesn’t want to, because he’s convinced he’s going to score big, and that this big win will somehow absolve him of every sin he commits along the way. His belief in that big score is intoxicating; by the time it’s over, Uncut Gems has us buy in fully to Howard’s insane fantasy, so that we want it as much as he does in the end. We’re gamblers by proxy, risking it all, consistently raising the stakes, with everything on the table. It’s a hell of a rush.It’s also a ball of anxiety, the tension in every scene ratcheted up to 11. This is mostly via Sandler’s performance, as the actor circles every scene with the ferocity of a shark that can’t stop swimming. Howard Ratner is desperately in need of a massage — and so will you be, once you’ve seen the movie. Uncut Gems is perhaps one of the most chaotic, neurotic, anxiety-inducing films I’ve ever seen, and not for the reasons you’d think. Howard’s luck ebbs and flows, only occasionally placing him in real danger. It’s just that spending time in Howard’s orbit is so draining. We are constantly on alert.
Writer/directors Josh and Benny Safdie showed tremendous promise in 2017’s Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as a hapless bank robber whose fate is sealed from the moment we meet him. Uncut Gems feels like a natural progression, but it’s more layered, more of a character study than a crime caper — because we are gradually brought in to Howard’s life, given glimpses of hope that he’ll find a way to work it out. We know what he stands to lose with all his bad decisions, so the suspense ratchets up exponentially.
Uncut Gems crackles with vitality, a New York nightmare as lived-in and sleazy as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver over forty years later. As a dark comedy or low-key heist thriller, it’s tremendously entertaining. But it’s also haunting, getting under your skin in a way so few movies manage to do in an unforgettable denouement. It’s perhaps the closest a film could ever get to smooshing the entire run of The Sopranos down into two hours.
The Safdies’ perversion of the American dream is a lottery ticket of a film — providing the rush of a get-rich-quick fantasy and the inevitable disappointment of realizing you’ve been taken for a sucker — nearly everyone who plays the lottery ends up poorer as a result. Uncut Gems features a definitive performance from Adam Sandler, a star-making turn by Julia Fox (reminiscent of Margot Robbie’s scene-stealing in The Wolf Of Wall Street), and cements the Safdies as some of America’s most exciting new filmmaking talents. In short, it’s a winner.