Adam Sandler has been good in films before. He was particularly amiable in The Wedding Singer, gave a strong performance playing it straighter in (ironically) Funny People and, as everyone says when they are discussing his filmography, he was excellent in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. With more than an alarmingly regularity though the man’s screen appearances have been absolutely excruciating. It is hard to select the right examples to truly illustrate this but he is almost unwatchable in Grown Ups and The Ridiculous 6 and his cameo as Javier Sandooski in Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, where he mostly just makes obscene hand gestures, is one of those things you wish you could unsee and is probably the main reason why the Continent currently has such a fractious relationship with all English speaking countries.
In the Safdie Brothers new movie though Adam Sandler is truly brilliant. I kid you not when I say that in this film Sandler is reminiscent of early 90s Pacino in something like Carlito’s Way. He is intense, he is volatile, he is measured, he is focused, he has power and he has that simmering charisma. Seriously, you would never have predicted this but Uncut Gems is Sandooski’s Way!
Having made this connection it occurred to me that the plot is slightly reminiscent of DePalma’s 1993 classic as well in the sense that, like Carlito, this protagonist is trying to untangle himself from some connections with the types of bad people who won’t be gentle if you cross them. In this respect though Sandler isn’t like the Pacino character in that film, he’s more like Sean Penn’s lawyer who’s ego and propensity for risk keeps leading him to make decisions that just make the situation a whole lot worse.
In Uncut Gems Adam Sandler plays a two bit jeweller called Howard Ratner (it’s just a beautiful coincidence, no one knows Gerald Ratner in the States). He is a gambler and a chancer and as a result he owes money to a lot of dodgy people. He has an exit strategy though and like Carlito one last job is going to set him free. Needless to say, things do not go as planned.
Uncut Gems is a remarkably tense film and interestingly this initially caused me to draw away from it. This was done for my own preservation in the way that you might watch a horror film and repeat to yourself ‘it’s not real, it’s not real’. Seriously, to get in too deep as a viewer could give you a major anxiety attack. Look after yourself. Ratner himself makes so many bad calls in the story that you almost wish him the misfortune he is bringing on himself but try as you might the film will get you in the end, as it did me, and the final moments are among the most nerve wracking minutes I have ever spent in the cinema. When the end comes it is a real relief and if I told you what that end is, you might find my resultant relaxation a bit of a surprise.
Sandler is superb then and the Academy’s failure to give him a nod this week is a criminal injustice. As suggested, he is not an immensely likeable character but Sandler always keeps you on his side. I fought him on this but he won. The film would have you believe that he is the uncut gem of the title but I can’t go all in with this analogy. There is a sequence at the start that makes this clear; juxtaposing scenes of miners excavating the big ruby he later tries to trade with shots of a doctor excavating him. If this guy is a diamond though, he is a very rough one. Still he gets you on side and this is largely in Sandler’s performance. He also portrays addiction in a way that avoids all of the cliches. He does suffer low points but generally he isn’t dwelling in his compulsion to gamble, he’s revelling in it. All in all it’s a precise and fascinating portrait of a complex human.
Of course this isn’t all down to the erstwhile Mr. Sandooski. The co-directors Benny and Josh Safdie have crafted a masterly film of which the lead actor is only one component. They have also get great work out of seasoned actors, some working a little outside of their usual field such as Idina Menzel, as well as novice performers like Julia Fox and a whole range of other people who have never stood in front of a movie camera before, including Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnet. The script is also layered like a verbal concertato with people speaking over one another, repeating and arguing, to a point of unsustainable and wonderfully verbose crescendo. Unlike that last sentence though, there is nothing pretentious about it. It’s somehow eloquently earthy.
Uncut Gems is certainly going to change things for the Safdies. This is not their first film but it’s going to be their calling card. The question is whether it will change things for Adam Sandler. Here’s hoping it will, at the very least so that we get no more Sandooski.
Is this one for the kids?
Apparently Uncut Gems has the fourth highest recurrence of the f word in any film so no, this is not one for children. Beyond this though it is a little sexy and a little violent but not excessively either.
The Ripley Factor:
Sandler’s Ratner has two women in his life, his wife and his girlfriend, and contrary to what you might think with this kind of triangle neither are weak. Menzel, as Mrs. Ratner, is particularly strong. It seems that she’s made a poor choice of husband but the way you see her respond to this discovery displays impressive and satisfying fortitude. Fox is less formidable but still shows great bravery and is probably the one you are really really rooting for by the time the credits roll.
Also, and I’ll speak about this obliquely because it is a bit of a spoiler, at the end I hope the two women find a way to share something other than a lover. Once you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean.
Uncut Gems is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 31st January