Uncut Gems (2019)
Adam Sandler is not a name that makes me look forward to a new movie. I don't think it's that strange to say that I did like a lot of his comedies when he first started his film career - Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, even Little Nicky - but he became tiresome rather quickly. The problem is that he relies on stupid voices and gives us characters that we had no reason to root for. It sometimes works, and it sometimes doesn't, but usually when it does he is playing a role that requires him to be an actual person. The Wedding Singer is a good example.
In 2002 there was a strange movie called Punch-Drunk Love. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it featured Sandler in what was still marginally a comedic role as a man with psychological and anger issues dealing with a both a sudden interruption in his life combined with romantic entanglements. Like all of Anderson's films it was strange, but Sandler suddenly proved there was more to him than just a guy grabbing the first script that took him somewhere he wanted to go on vacation. It helped that his usual production company, and all the baggage that goes with it, was not involved.
Punch-Drunk Love was an art film, and as such it wasn't a hit on the level of some of his better comedies, but it did make critics take notice that there might be more to Adam Sandler. Then, for the next 17 years, he squandered every last ounce of good will anyone had for him. His movies became less about him playing the funny loser and more about him screaming for anyone to please, please still pay attention to him. Some of his newer movies still got a decent amount of views on Netflix, but then again there is a pandemic going on and at some point, just like that baloney sandwich that's been in the back of the fridge for two weeks, someone is going to be curious and take the plunge. Unfortunately, the feeling afterwards in both cases is going to be similar.
It was because of Punch-Drunk Love that when I saw one of the newer Sandler films was not a comedy, but instead a strange crime drama called Uncut Gems, I was interested. I had been waiting for Sandler to do something different, as I never actually hated the guy, just the string of awful movies he has been churning out forever. Maybe he realized as well that it was time for a change, especially since Benny and Josh Safdie were already known for giving actors that had overstayed their welcome a bit of a hand up, particularly when they saw something in them. They did this with Robert Pattinson in Good Time, and decided to get Sandler for Uncut Gems.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is the owner of a jewelry store in New York. He has a number of talented people working in his store to bring in celebrities, but he tends to treat most of his employees like garbage. He also has a gambling addiction, owing his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) around $100,000. Arno happens to send collectors the same day that a raw stone, containing rare fire opals, arrives due to a black-market deal with miners in Ethiopia. Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett, who happens to be visiting the store, becomes obsessed with the stone, and Ratner allows him to borrow it.
When Garnett fails to return the stone the next day Howard's anxiety increases and he puts pressure on a consignor named Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) to get it back for him. Howard has his heart set on a big sale at auction to clear up his debt. However, he can't help but continue to place bets, much to Arno's concern, and Garnett seems reluctant to give the stone back. As his marriage, affair with his mistress and professional life all begin to deteriorate, the stone and the temporary relief it can bring becomes an obsession.
One important thing to understand about Uncut Gems is that it is not something to watch if already under stress. The movie focuses on the anxiety of Howard's life, most of it of his own doing. He is constantly in motion, as is the camera, and constantly dreaming up new ways of trying to make the biggest score ever. There are few peaceful moments in the film, and they are quite noticeable when they arrive - it's like suddenly having an industrial generator cut out after running so long that the noise has become part of the background itself. The movie is loud, with none of the characters appearing to listen to anyone else, and often seeming to try not to be drowned out by Oneohtrix Point Never's electronic soundtrack. In many places it seems like this is an endurance test more than a movie.
But, personally, I love the soundtrack. It gives the proceedings an otherworldly quality, especially when things calm down. The Safdie Brothers also know what they are doing by keeping everything amped up - Howard starts the movie getting a colonoscopy, and it becomes obvious this is a guy whose every move is self-destructive and is leading to a death by heart attack or any number of other causes. The difference is that often this type of character ultimately learns something about themselves, becoming aware of the damage they have done and channeling their obsession for their own good and that of their family. In this case Adam Sandler is the perfect choice for the role, as he has the frenetic energy to pull it off, but also the acting chops to show that this is a man who has not found one ounce of happiness in his life, his choice of business or his supposed leisure time. That dissatisfaction with his life affects everyone around him, especially his wife, who rebukes any attempt at a reconciliation.
Besides Sandler there are a number of surprisingly good performances throughout, especially since many of them come from people who are not actors. Kevin Garnett just has to be tall and play basketball, and that may have been what other directors would have him do. Instead, we get a fiery speech to Howard about how he is exploiting Ethiopians, and in particular his own people. Julia Fox plays Howard's lover, and this was her first acting role, but she comes across as a budding Marissa Tomei. We also have a small appearance by Judd Hirsch as Howard's father-in-law, whom he uses as a shill bidder for the stone, and voice actress Idina Menzel playing Ratner's long-suffering wife who is just chomping at the bit to get out of being married to him.
It is true that Uncut Gems is not something that appeals to everyone, but I find the Safdie Brothers to be creative filmmakers that obviously have a love for Martin Scorsese (who helped produce the movie) and other classic directors of the '70s and '80s. While they wear this on their sleeve, the furthest we're going back here is 2010, with the story taking place in 2012. While influences are evident, they have a style of their own and I admire that they didn't feel the need to do a period piece, but were more concerned about being able to frame the story around certain events in basketball to make sure that it was largely consistent with the time. As for Sandler, I really hope he realizes that this is where he belongs, and not as Hubie Halloween.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Time: 135 minutes
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie