You’d be forgiven for scoffing at the notion that Adam Sandler is responsible for one of the year’s finest acting performances.
A look through the actor’s recent filmography shows dud after dud, with Netflix productions The Week Of and Murder Mystery joining Pixels and the Grown Ups franchise in the actor’s seemingly boundless hall of infamy.
In fact, since his career-defining role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 classic Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler has delivered an almost universal stream of dross. Bar an excellent turn in Noah Baumbach’s fantastic 2017 comedy drama The Meyerowitz Stories, which was a timely reminder of his talent, the actor’s work has been widely critically reviled.
Consequently, it’s as surprising as it is exhilarating to see the star of Jack and Jill deliver an all-timer performance in Uncut Gems, the latest film by Josh and Benny Safdie, distributed by Netflix and acclaimed indie studio A24 and produced by Martin Scorsese.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a serious miscarriage of justice that Sandler has not been nominated for this year’s Best Actor Oscar. He is truly electric as Howard Ratner, a New York jeweller and compulsive gambler, who has run up large debts with the all wrong people, including his loan shark brother-in-law. To make matters worse, Howard’s marriage is on the rocks and his relationship with his mistress Julia (Julia Fox) is threatened by musician The Weeknd (no, seriously.)
Howard believes that the solution is to gamble his way out of trouble. Whether it’s pawning his personal items or investing small winnings into larger bets, he buys himself time and attempts to create a cash flow until a big score is bound to come in.
With a large suburban home and a smart apartment in the city, Howard lives a plush life, but he’s evidently had mixed recent success. Yet, it looks like may be about the hit the jackpot. He’s come into the possession of a valuable opal, from an Ethiopian diamond mine, which he hopes will fetch a healthy price at auction.
Thanks to help from Howard’s assistant Demany (a consistently excellent LaKeith Stanfield), former Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (playing himself in a remarkably assured performance) has become interested in said opal, convinced that it positively affects his performances.
Granted, it’s an odd set up for a film. However, as we watch Howard attempt to scheme his way through two glorious anxiety-inducing hours, we become utterly immersed in this gloriously hectic world. The film has so many moving parts, but assured direction from the Safdie brothers keeps the narrative moving forward, as Howard and the audience hold the end goal firmly in mind.
As the narrative progresses, our allegiance to Howard is tested. He is a deeply flawed individual, who treats people badly, while enraptured by his schemes and held hostage by the thrill of them. However, Sandler’s magnetic performance means you can’t help but want him to win. He comes alive as Howard relishes his frenzied existence.
Sandler grounds the character, making him a sympathic figure. We see behind the quick-talking slick exterior and find a man on the edge, desperately struggling to hold everything together.
“★★★★★ It’s the year’s most exciting film. You can take that to the bank.” (@Guardian)
— Uncut Gems (@uncutgems) January 17, 2020
Credit must go to the screenplay, written by the Safdie brothers with Ronald Bronstein. Uncut Gems is positively Shakespearean in its presentation of personal flaws and uses them adeptly in its storytelling. As the film’s catalyst, the addictive and gluttonous nature of gambling is examined to a nerve-shredding extent, while the black and white essence of winning and losing comes to a head in the finest and most gripping third act seen in years.
Stakes increase as the film goes on, and Daniel Lopatin’s score helps ramp up the tension. Electric and synth-heavy, the music is redolent of Blade Runner and combines with Darius Khondji’s cinematography to paint New York in an atmospheric manner and leave the viewer feeling as if they are teetering on a precipice.
Lopatin’s nerve-racking techno beats match with Howard’s hectic existence, while Khondi uses the city’s lights and glass buildings to make New York look glossy and futuristic. The oft-filmed city is presented in a distinct manner here, as the Safdies capture the sleek yet trashy veneer of Manhattan’s diamond district.
The Safdies’ direction also produces universally brilliant acting performances. As seen throughout his career, Sandler is an actor who needs strong direction to bring the best out of him, but the supporting performances are all also fantastic.
Idina Menzel is perfectly cast as Dinah, Howard’s wife. The rational half of a failing marriage, Dinah is the perfect grounded antidote to Howard’s speculative and unerring optimism. Their relationship, and their deal to split up after Passover in order to soften the blow to their Jewish family, provides a number of comedic beats. Likewise, Fox is wonderful in a break out role and elevates Julia beyond being just the other woman in Howard’s life. A fully-realised character, Julia is the film’s emotional ballast and plays her part in its stressful finale.
Amazingly, Uncut Gems failed to secure a single nomination at the Academy Awards. A brilliant character study, which catches a man in the clutch of addiction and paints the world’s most filmed city in a new, distinct, and vibrant manner, the Safdies’ latest feature is one of the year’s finest. The New Yorkers have delivered a new defining film for their city and have drawn an extraordinary performance from a man who has made two Grown Ups films. Utterly sublime filmmaking.
Rating: 5 stars
Uncut Gems is currently showing in select cinemas and is released on Netflix on 31/01/2020.
Image courtesy of HOME, with thanks.