Adam Sandler is Hollywood’s biggest contradiction. Though his comedies range from pretty good (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore) to god-awful (Grown Ups, Jack and Jill), they have amassed more than $3 billion at the box office. The SNL-alum-turned-production-tycoon got rich by repeating himself. See (or don’t) his Netflix hit Murder Mystery — it’s comic laziness incarnate.
And then there’s the other Adam Sandler, the actor who makes fools of his detractors. In the annals of the Golden Raspberrys — think the Oscars but for gross cinematic incompetence — only Sly Stallone has more wins than Sandler’s nine. But what about the guy who had critics raving in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002)? Or the performer who went above and beyond the call of duty in James L. Brooks’ Spanglish (2004), Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009), and especially Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)? Oscar voters pretend not to see that Sandler’s a clown who can, almost by an act of will, stand toe-to-toe with the best we’ve got.
Shame on them if they snub the performance that the actor delivers in Uncut Gems, a potent study of a man coming unglued that plays like a white-knuckle thriller. Sandler is Howard Ratner, a jewelry-store owner in New York’s Diamond District circa 2012 who runs his business like a gambling junkie, thriving on the rush and hot for a new score that might lose him everything. And the deeper Howard goes, the louder Sandler’s howling, adrenalized roar builds.
He could not have found better collaborators than the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, sibling directors who are incendiary talents. Their four previous indie features (notably 2017’s Good Time, with Robert Pattinson) have prepped them for their most personal film yet. As Syrian Jews whose father worked in the Diamond District, the Safdies feel this movie in their bones, casting nonactors off those streets to work with the pros in order to achieve raw, riveting authenticity.
Sandler catches that vibe and runs with it, as Howard is pushed up against walls and into tight corners. The breakneck script that the Safdies wrote with Ronald Bronstein believes in defaulting to shouts when there’s something to say. Shot on the move by the superb veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Midnight in Paris, The Immigrant) and scored by Daniel Lopatin, Uncut Gems does not let up. Every second in this movie pops, starting with opening on a black opal being mined in Ethiopia (social criticism intended) and working its way to Howard’s store.
The stone, which is said to be worth a million, should be Howard’s way out of a debt he owes to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), a nasty sleaze not given to family loyalty. Neither is Howard’s about-to-be ex-wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), whose irritations extend to Julia (dynamite newcomer Julia Fox), the store clerk Howard is screwing around with on the side. You think his day job is hectic? Try taking a look at his personal life.
For Howard, however, the opal is not a solution but a means to an end. The minute his pal Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) shows up at the store with then-active Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (in a killer spin on himself), Howard agrees to lend him the gem as a good-luck charm. Why? Because Howard thinks it’ll give a karmic edge to the Celtics game he’s betting on.
This leads to the film’s extended climax, a sequence of such profound, palm-sweating tension that you may have to catch your breath. We’ve already watched Howard take his lumps when debt collectors beat him senseless, took his clothes, and locked him in the trunk of a car parked outside his daughter’s school. But that’s nothing compared to the crisis in Howard’s store when he barricades Arno and his henchman Phil (a truly scary Keith Williams Richards) in the store’s glassed-in security enclosure in full view of Howard, now glued to the TV, doing a frenzied play-by-play of the hoops game that can save his life or end it. Howard is a beast of a role, and the Safdies spotlight Sandler meeting every challenge.