Recently, while appearing on Howard Stern to promote his buzzy performance in Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler declared that if he doesn’t win an Oscar this year, then he’s going to retaliate by next starring in the worst movie he can find. But Sandler has been starring in the worst movies he can find (or rather, produce) for years now, so I’m not really sure where the threat is here. If we learned anything about the laid-back yet still enigmatic megastar from Judd Apatow’s meta-portrait Funny People (one of the good films), it’s that Sandler is an actor happily content with taking the big paychecks to star in whatever dreck comes across his desk, which has largely played out in reality in the eleven years since that film was released.
But yes, every once in a blue moon, the legendary (?) comedian decides to step outside his comfort zone. We saw it with Punch-Drunk Love, we saw it with Funny People and now he’s taken a quick break from Netflix shitposting to headline the latest arty thrill-ride from the Safdie Brothers. It’s the first time he’s fully lent his persona to another filmmaker’s offbeat creative vision since trusting Paul Thomas Anderson all those years ago. But where Punch-Drunk Love was more or less an extended intellectualized riff on the obnoxious man-boy image that made Sandler famous, his turn in Uncut Gems is more grounded and realistically intense.
As Howard Ratner, a motor-mouthed jeweler who runs a high-end but somewhat shady backroom store, Sandler dashes around New York City over the course of a few days, desperately trying to make a huge score off of a priceless new gem he’s managed to get his hands on from a specific mine in Africa. But with debts, competition, unruly customers and his own disgruntled family closing in on him, he has to keep finding a way to come out on top as the problems keep piling up. Twitchy and breathless, with a snaky charm that’s hard to deny even when he’s being awful, Sandler becomes Howard effortlessly, making the film into his own gritty Cassavetes-like character piece.
For the Safdie Brothers, this is their next step up to the big leagues, after breaking out to a wider audience with 2017’s Good Time. And while Uncut Gems may not be quite as propulsive and razor sharp as their last film, its sprawling two-hour-plus runtime befits the tale of a man whose tricky balancing act of a life is gradually becoming a mess that’s harder and harder to clean up. Over the course of their filmmaking career, the Safdies have micro focused in on urban characters living on the edge, scraping together an existence with nothing to lose. Howard Ratner, on the other hand, with his multi-million dollar home, posh family and high-profile clientele has everything to lose, and watching him try to desperately keep it all together is thrilling in its own right.
The Safdies add other clever touches throughout, setting the film in 2012 (the period-specific iPhones everybody carries around look hilariously outdated and chunky even though it was only seven years ago) and having celebrities like former NBA star Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd playing versions of themselves at that time. Garnett himself is even a main player in the story, as well as the Boston Celtics’ playoff run that year, with the Safdies incorporating actual game footage to weave their story around real life events.
Uncut Gems is a go-for-broke extravaganza for both the Safdies and for Sandler himself, who is alive in a way I don’t think I’ve ever really seen before. So will Oscar come calling? If it means he’ll link up with more directors willing to push him in different directions, I sure hope so.