A decade ago, if someone had come up to me and told me that the man behind Grown Ups and Billy Madison would one day become a serious award-worthy dramatic actor, I would have laughed them out of the room. O’ me of little faith. His time on Noah Baumbach’s 2017 family dramedy The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) has shown that there’s more to the funnyman that meets the eye. Beneath the shrill, ear-grating vocal contortions and his seemingly bottomless oeuvre of stale fart jokes was a longing for more. An energy begging to be harnessed or released in a cascade of raw talent and fierce dedication. A piece of clay full of potential, waiting for the right artist to make beauty and form out of him. That day has come. In Josh and Bernie Safdie’s engaging crime thriller, Uncut Gems, I have witnessed Sandler’s cinematic apotheosis. You beautiful bastards did the impossible and I will want to tell you all how they did it!
As the title of the film suggests, the plot revolves around the eponymous uncut gem which is a priceless black opal of African Jewish heritage found by two Ethiopian miners. Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweller comes into possession of that opal and sets a complex scheme into motion. He plans on selling it at an auction with hopes of making over a million dollars in returns, particularly to basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (who plays himself in this film which is pretty bloody awesome). Anyway, his entire plan goes south when Garnett and Ratner’s associate Demany borrow the opal for a game.
Garnett believes the opal to have some sort of mystical properties that make him play basketball better. Garnett delays the opal’s return which lands Ratner in a world of trouble seeing that he has to deal with his loan shark brother-in-law, Arno who wants his money back. Things escalate quickly as Ratner races around town scamming and gambling away his wealth in a bid to settle his debts and make some cheddar at the side. His incessant gambling and double-dealing has him burning bridges with friends and family as the walls close in on him. Much like Garnett, Ratner places his hopes on the rare opal to be his salvation from the swirling shit-storm heading his way.
Uncut Gem is a relentless exploration into one man’s slow self-destruction that will leave your heart pounding and aching by the end of it all. Right from the get-go, we get a sense of Ratner’s desperation as he struggles to juggle between his responsibility as a father, a business owner and a lover to his mistress. The Safdies brilliantly orchestrate this symphony of personal errors and mini meltdowns to terrific effect.
The entrance and exeunt of each character circling Howard’s life, from Arno to his vitriolic soon-to-be ex-wife Dinah to his mistress Julia to Garnett, bring fresh calamities for the man. Nonetheless, we’re never left with the monotony of misery. Moments of possible triumph come rushing in and out of Ratner’s life, leaving us in a sense of exuberance. Perhaps this will be the time Howard makes things right? Perhaps his troubles are behind him? Don’t bet on it.
Ratner’s self-sabotaging compulsion for gambling and his dishonest dealings always find a way to sour his winnings. There is a tug-of-war within Howard to be an honourable man and to descend further into his greed. All this could only be made possible through a strong script which lands on the shoulders of Ronald Bronstein and the Safdie brothers. The three of them manage to encapsulate the quintessence of a New York white-collar conman with their characterization of Sandler’s Howard.
Watching him on-screen is so frustrating in the best way possible. I feel for his plight and his struggles and rejoice at his successes but due to his inability to break away from his bad habits, he lands into more trouble. Not since 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis have I felt so deeply for such a seemingly irredeemable schmuck.
Then, of course, there’s the man of the hour himself. Adam Sandler. There comes a time when an actor’s performance marks his career. Al Pacino with The Godfather, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Enter through those hallowed halls, Sandler cause Uncut Gems is undoubtedly his greatest performance yet. Sandler animates Ratner with this neurotic energy that immediately raises red flags in our minds. Beneath the shit-eating grin and confident vernier of a high-roller is a desperate individual looking for easy solutions to life’s great problems. Throughout his dealings and interactions, we see this mask begin to crack.
It takes great restraint and a profound understanding of one’s character to know when to project strength and when to shrink. At some point, it was honestly difficult to draw the line between where Sandler begins and where Ratner ends. Everything from tone to delivery to his body language is a tapestry of pain and desire written all over the jeweller. Sandler’s tour de force role is furthered bolstered by a strong cast of supporting actors. Frozen 2’s Idina Menzel as his spiteful, bitter wife Dinah is as true to life as any classic divorcee could be. Someone thoroughly fed up with Howard and has every desire to see him keep his end of the bargain as a father to her children.
Knives Out‘s Lakeith Stanfield as Demany and Kevin Garnett as a fictionalized version of himself both add some humour and colour to this otherwise melancholic tale. Both of them playing an unwitting foil to Ratner’s success with effortless swagger and hilarious, explosive bouts of street-life machismo. Eric Bogosian as Arno and Keith Williams as his ill-tempered goon make for an intimidating duo when putting the squeeze on Ratner for their money. Though there are times their bit feel a tad passe.
Uncut Gems is nothing short of a monumental achievement. A phenomenal showcase for Sandler’s talent as an actor and impressive addition to the Safdie brothers’ growing repertoire. This marks a turning point in Sandler’s career and I, for one, am excited to follow the trajectory of his career as a dramatic actor from here on out. The fact that Uncut Gems isn’t nominated at the Oscars is a freaking travesty. For what it’s worth, we’re more than happy to celebrate it here. Uncut Gems is streaming on Netflix now and for goodness sake, give it a watch!