Adam Sander Is a Lovable Dirtbag in Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler has been regularly churning out comedic films since he first appeared in Billy Madison nearly 25 years ago. Silly comedies are what made Adam Sandler a household name, but every so often, Sandler takes a break from comedy and engrosses himself in dramatic roles and the results are usually quite good.
In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays a NYC jeweler with a self-destructive gambling addiction and will have audiences simultaneously rooting for him and wanting to slap sense into him. The film was written and directed by the Safdie Brothers (Good Times, 2018), who based the story in part on their father’s stories of the jewelry trade in NYC. The Safdie’s match Sandler’s energy with a fast-paced film that will leave you almost breathless by the end. The quick cuts, gritty look, and unique score creates a tension that only escalates throughout the film. The technical achievement simply wouldn’t matter if Sandler didn’t bring his weird, dark energy to the role. He fully embodies this loathsome, sleazy character whose reckless decisions are incredibly frustrating and stressful, but still have audiences rooting for him.
The film opens in an African mine, where an accident injures a number of miners, but also reveals a large, uncut opal stone. As the camera zooms into the gem’s shimmering beauty, the audience is transported to NYC, specifically, a doctor’s office where Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, Murder Mystery, 2019) is getting his colon examined. After this unorthodox character introduction, Howard heads to his office, a jewelry store, in New York’s Diamond District. Along with his colorful staff, Howard is greeted by two intimidating men who are visiting the store because of Howard’s gambling debts to a man named Arno. After offering them waters, he is slapped in the face in front of his employees and the two goons snatch the money out of his wallet along with his watch. Rather than treating this situation seriously, Howard goes out and sells some celebrity jewelry he recently obtained and heads right to the bookie to place a bet.
After Howard’s character returns to the store, his associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out, 2019) delivers some exciting news. Demany, who focuses on recruiting rich celebrities to visit Howard’s store, convinces Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett ‘KG’ to visit the store ahead of his game against the Knicks. Garnett, who is retired in real life, plays himself during an actual series against the 76’ers in 2012. While Garnett is browsing glass case after glass case, a special package arrives for Howard featuring the giant opal stone from the opening sequence. After months of negotiating, Howard obtains the stone and hopes to sell it for $1 million. Howard tries to impress Garnett with the stone and it isn’t long before KG is wide-eyed in amazement. KG asks to borrow the stone for the night before making a final purchase. Howard reluctantly agrees to give him the stone, but only after getting KG’s NBA championship ring as collateral. After Garnett leaves, Howard takes his ring to a pawn shop to borrow cash, which he then uses to place a massive bet on the Celtics that same night. While Howard is running around town making side deals, he doesn’t realize that Arno (Eric Bogosian, Rebel in the Rye, 2017) and his debt collectors are following him and aware of the new betting.
It doesn’t take long for audiences to understand that Howard is reckless with money and his business. Rather than simply sell a rare stone he worked hard to obtain and pay off his debts, he lends that stone to a star athlete who he just met, then uses the athlete’s collateral to borrow money from a pawn shop to bet even more money. Financial risk-taking is not Howard’s only vice, however, as his home life is equally as messy. Howard is having an affair with Julia (Julia Fox in her film debut), a young girl working in his store that is half his age and spends the weekends clubbing and seemingly stealing expensive jewelry from celebrities. Howard has a sizable pad for Julie in the city to go along with his flashy house in the suburbs that he still maintains with his wife, Dinah, (Idina Menzel, Frozen II, 2019) and his kids. Dinah wants nothing to do with Howard. While their marriage is romantically over, a pending divorce will soon make it legally donezo. Throughout the film, Howard gambles personally and professionally and it’s only a matter of time before it comes crashing down from every angle.
Sandler, who is best known for his comedic performances, is very impressive in dramatic roles when he is motivated, and Sandler answers the call in this film where he appears in just about every scene. Since the movie is so Sandler-centric, the supporting roles are very underdeveloped. Outside of Kevin Garnett and Julia Fox, audiences never get to know the other supporting characters like Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel or Eric Bogosian. In fact, even halfway through the movie, it is difficult to understand the nature of Howard’s relationships with the supporting cast. This was likely a directing decision, but one that didn’t feel necessary and may be a hindrance for moviegoers who could feel confused as the movie plows ahead. Also, it may have been nice to get a break from Howard so the audience could get its bearings.
In addition to the underdeveloped and under-explained supporting actors, the language and subject matter may be a turn off for some viewers. Sandler drops an ‘F bomb’ in just about every sentence, which was excessive and his wild bets may confuse people who are not into sports gambling. This film certainly isn’t for everyone, but beyond the foul language and gambling, the frenzied story about perils of addiction is worthy of a view.
Bottom Line: Adam Sandler is the ultimate sleaze ball who audiences will love and hate in the latest drama by the Safdie brothers, Uncut Gems. The cleverly quick editing, gritty setting and borderline deafening script coupled with Sandler gambling his life away, personally and professionally, make for an intense viewing, but some may feel is a gem.
Credits: Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh and Benny Safdie; directed by Josh and Benny Safdie.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner), Kevin Garnett (himself), Idina Menzel (Dinah), Lakeith Stanfield (Demany), Julia Fox (Julia), Eric Bogosian (Arno).
Running Time: 135 minutes
Jessica DeLong © December 26, 2019