As many of us do, the arrival of the year’s end is a time for me to look back. If I were to sum it up, 2019 was all about surprise. Putting aside the absolute insanity of our politics, the year in film has been wild as hell. We saw both the Star Wars and MCU franchises come to a temporary end. We saw films about cathartic cults, flicks involving doppelgangers, and a number of movies examining class warfare. Perhaps strangest of all, we saw one of the best performances of the year delivered by Adam Sandler.
Maybe it’s not so strange, though! I’ll grant you that a cursory look through Sandler’s filmography is dire, to say the least. The majority of his films are bro-ey comedies where he’s doing little more than dicking around with his friends and getting paid for it. I generally don’t begrudge people enjoying a thing, and I’ve read numerous times that Sandler is a genuinely good dude. The sad fact is that his comedies aren’t for me.
It doesn’t matter if they’re for me, because his movies have made billions at the box office. Quite a lot of people love his comedy, and in order to be a successful comedian, you’ve got to have a keen understanding of human behavior. Sandler might play the fool, but he’s far from an idiot. He pays attention and files those little behavioral tics away for later. Once in a while, he’ll even explore the dark side.
Along with his comedies, he’s played a jaded movie star in Funny People, a man annihilated by 9/11 in Reign Over Me, and a desperately lonely entrepreneur in Punch-Drunk Love. When Sandler has the right material — and I’m not kidding here — he can not only hold his own against anyone, but he can also deliver acting that’s skilled and nuanced. Sandler continues to prove that with his bravura performance in the new film Uncut Gems. It’s by no means a film for everyone, but those attuned to its panicky rhythms won’t forget it.
Some people experience addiction through their struggles with drugs or alcohol. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a little different. There’s a great yawning void inside him that he fills with near-constant chaos. How did he get to that point? We’re never told outright, but brief asides tell us everything we need to know about his likely beginnings and probable end.
Howard operates a store in the midst of Manhattan’s Diamond District. It’s small, claustrophobic, and the dual security entrances give Howard a much-needed buffer between himself and whatever likely pissed-off person he’s dealing with. He’s constantly hustling, and his associate Demany lures in potential clients for wildly overpriced sales. Surrounded by valuable stones, Howard yearns for the deal that will push him over the top.
The acquisition of a black opal from Ethiopia might be the deal he’s waiting for. Sure, Howard feels a connection to it due to the Ethiopian Jews who unearthed it. His larger connection is the upcoming auction of the black opal and its potential value of over one million dollars. Making the deal even sweeter is the arrival of basketball player Kevin Garnett, who sees the opal and is bewitched by it. He asks Howard if he can “hold onto it” for luck at that evening’s game and offers his blinged-out championship ring for collateral. Howard says yes, and this is only the first of many, many poor decisions he’ll make.
You’d think that would be stressful enough for Howard, yet he immediately pawns Kevin’s ring, then takes the money and places a ridiculously big bet on the game. This gets the attention of his brother-in-law and loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian), to whom he owes a lot of money. He’s accompanied by Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), two legbreakers who would happily kick Howard’s ass up and down the street. There’s also Howard’s wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who views him as a loudmouthed joke, and his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), who has her own struggles.
In the past, we’ve talked about the twin mistakes filmgoers sometimes make with 1) assuming that the main character of a film should be likable and 2) assuming that a film should be enjoyable. That is nowhere close to correct here, and while Uncut Gems is a hell of a good movie, it’s also a two-hour panic attack of a film that follows around an unrepentant scumbag. Trust me, you won’t be bounding out of the theater with a spring in your step.
Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie have directed a grimy and explosive film that would be right at home in a Times Square theater in the 1970s. Set in a New York City thoroughly scrubbed clean by gentrification, the Safdies specialize in digging between the cracks and showing us the desperate people who view every day as a battle. It’s that desperation that fuels the film, and their pacing is relentless. Layered on top is a pulsing synth-based soundtrack by experimental electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never. He creates a constant environment of unease, never quite allowing viewers to settle in and relax.
Written by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein, the screenplay is a marvel on several fronts. First, it excels at dropping us into the pure chaos of Howard’s world and revealing character through action. We stick with Howard’s point of view throughout, yet time is always taken to show people reacting to him with bemusement, annoyance, contempt, and rage. The script also understands that, regardless of what a person is addicted to, addiction is a black hole that cannot be filled. That’s the point of addiction, and the screenplay never moralizes and treats Howard as a cautionary tale. We’re dropped into his shoes and taken for the ride, whether we like it or not.
What makes the ride bearable is a lead actor that’s innately likable. Not everybody in film has that warmth, and while I’m a great admirer of Edward Norton’s skill as an actor, he often comes off as cold. If he had played Howard, the movie would have been a nightmare. Adam Sandler’s charisma helps to draw us in, and we worry about the end result of his poor decisions. Howard is a perpetual motion machine, always moving, talking, plotting. He lives on the edge, and he’s driven by delusional goals. Sandler has the fanatic’s gleam in his eye, and he always knows when to crank it up or throttle it back depending on the situation. It’s a performance of enormous skill and discipline that deserves recognition.
Uncut Gems is very much a Your-Mileage-May-Vary kind of film. The Safdie Brothers have zero interest in making a crowd-pleaser. Their artistic ambitions are highly specific, and the kinds of people that adore Adam Sandler movies like Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer will positively despise his newest film. That’s fine since real art has a distinctive point of view and the courage to stand by it. Uncut Gems.is art and it’s one of the best films of the year.