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Sandler sparkles in ‘Uncut Gems’

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It’s easy to poke fun at Adam Sandler. His output in recent years has been largely of the “working vacation with my friends” variety, comedies that are basic and kind of lazy. Oh, and not particularly funny. Sandler has found a formula that works for him; the dude works only as hard as he has to, contenting himself with good enough.

Of course, it’s ALSO easy to forget that when Sandler is given the right material and given a proper push, he can be brilliant. It’s been a while, but we’ve finally got another great performance to add to the list.

“Uncut Gems,” directed by filmmaking brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie from a script written by the Safdies and Ronald Brownstein, is a visceral and gritty drama, a moment-in-time period piece set all the way back in the bygone time of 2012. It is a character study of a man with little character, a self-absorbed degenerate who can’t help but succumb to his own baser impulses. It is a brutal, ugly story, driven by a collection of terrible people, few of whom possess any kind of truly redeeming qualities.

Howard Ratner (Sandler) runs a jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District. He’s a loud, abrasive guy, festooned with gaudy baubles and sporting an even gaudier attitude. His wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, “Frozen II”) hates him; his mistress Julia (Julia Fox in her feature debut), who also works in his store, takes advantage of him. He has a significant gambling problem, having run up numerous big debts, including $100,000 to a bookie named Arno (Eric Bogosian, TV’s “Succession”) … and Arno’s muscle is getting antsy.

Howard has a plan, though – he’s spent months making arrangements to get his hands on a massive black opal, an uncut gemstone whose worth he estimates at a million dollars. The plan is to auction the stone, but things get complicated when Howard’s associate Demany (LaKeith Steinfeld, “Knives Out”) brings a big potential customer. Like, literally big – it’s NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Howard shows Garnett the opal, only to have the big man demand to buy it. Howard refuses, but acquiesces to an arrangement where Garnett borrows the stone, leaving his 2008 championship ring as collateral.

What follows is a roller coaster comedy of errors. Howard’s world becomes a constant churn of extreme highs and extreme lows. His plans are thwarted at every turn; it seems as though every time he begins to feel any inkling of euphoria regarding a perceived success, the rug is pulled out from under him. As he careens through a week of these ups and downs, the odds of his ultimate success grow slimmer and slimmer. The risks undertaken grow ever larger; it’s not long before Howard is stuck making one last desperate move, needing the stars to align for him to have any chance of preventing his whole life from crumbling around him.

“Uncut Gems” is one of the most relentlessly tense films I’ve seen in years. From the opening minutes, the Safdies seize you by the front of your shirt and absolutely refuse to let go. They shake you and spin you, rattling you with stylistic and narrative unpredictability. You never quite know what’s happening next. You’re trapped on the roller coaster alongside Howard … and the safety bar looks a little wobbly.

It might seem strange to comment on period authenticity when the period in question is less than a decade ago, but the Safdies have done great work in evoking an age that, while only recently past, is still different that the one in which we currently live. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it adds some wonderful levels to the viewing experience.

Of course, any conversation about this film is going to revolve around Sandler. No one since Paul Thomas Anderson has been able to so successfully guide Sandler to an effective subversion of his angry man-child persona. In Ratner, Sandler has an ideal character through which to channel that vibe of arrested development; he leans hard into the toxicity of it all, creating a man who somehow manages to evoke sympathy amidst truly reprehensible behavior. To both embrace and repudiate one’s reputation is a tough thing to do, yet he manages it with committed ease. Honestly, it’s probably the best work he’s ever done.

He’s not alone, obviously. Stanfield is one of those actors who quietly makes everything he’s in better, whether he’s in the lead or just handling a handful of scenes. He’s somewhere in-between here, but he’s quite good. Fox is good as well, particularly considering her lack of film experience. Bogosian’s performance is strong and growing stronger throughout. Menzel is fine, albeit underutilized. Judd Hirsch is here, as is The Weeknd. And finally, there’s Kevin Garnett, who’s legitimately good. Sure, he’s playing himself, but there’s zero of the self-consciousness you often get with athletes on screen. An unexpected delight.

“Uncut Gems” is a gut-punch of a movie, piling tension upon escalating tension. With ever questionable decisions and ill-considered action, the Safdies drag us further and further into the bleak grime they’ve created. Misanthropy abounds as these terrible people make terrible choices in an effort to achieve their terrible goals.

With an engaging and occasionally surprising visual style and a career-best performance from Adam Sandler, “Uncut Gems” is truly precious.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 09 January 2020 10:03

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