Adam Sandler proves he’s no goofball doofus in gritty character drama
Starring Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel & Julia Fox
Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie
In select theaters Friday, Dec. 13; wide release Wed., Dec. 25, 2019
Think “Adam Sandler movie” and your mind probably goes to one of his memorable comedies, like Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Waterboy or Grown Ups. Those were some funny films, for sure.
But there’s nothing funny—certainly not that kind of funny—in his latest, a dark, gritty, almost grimy slice-of-life character-drama crime caper about a small-time New York City hustler looking to score his next big moneymaker.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the owner of an appointment-only jewelry showroom in the Big Apple’s teeming diamond district. And Howard’s life isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as it may sound. His shop is one of many, many places where people come to barter, banter, bark, pawn and fawn over precious gemstones, pricey wristwatches and glittery, bling-y bric-a-brac. It’s a buzzing beehive of buying, braying and selling.
But it’s not enough for Howard, a compulsive, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing gambler who’s dangerously deep in debt, when we meet him, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. How so? We don’t know exactly. The movie, delirious with its own crazy momentum and nervous energy, barely pauses for breath, and we never really find out.
Thugs confront him at his store, rough him up, warning him to pay up, or else. They grab him by his legs, dangle him out an open window, hundreds of feet above the street, threatening him with his life. Howard yaks his way out of the jam, tells them he’s got a plan. He doesn’t tell them, but it’s a massive black opal from the mines of Ethiopia, a “million-dollar” rock pulled from the bowels of the earth, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. When this potato-sized, uncut gem arrives, his ship will finally come in, it will be the bonanza of a lifetime, and it will make the world right.
Uncut Gems is the latest from the filmmaking Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, best known for their edgy, artsy, propulsive 2017 film-fest favorite Good Time, with Robert Pattinson, about a botched bank robbery and a twisted neon-lit overnight odyssey through the criminal underbelly of New York. This movie is also edgy, twisty and propulsive, with a din of people constantly yelling and selling, an ever-churning undertow of scheming that you can’t imagine possibly ending well and a throbbing, synth-heavy, ’80s-tinged soundtrack that keeps pushing tensions higher and higher. It’s like a crazy, illegal party that could get busted at any moment—if someone with a gun and a grudge doesn’t make something much worse happen even sooner.
There’s not much to like about Howard. He’s a disreputable businessman, and also a heedless adulterer who’s having a torrid affair with one of his employees (newcomer Julia Fox, making a fiery debut) under the resentful glare of his long-suffering wife (Broadway star Idina Menzel, many movie miles away from her soaring vocal work as the Frozen franchise’s Queen Elsa) and the disappointment of their two children.
But it’s impossible not to totally admire the gut-punch, in-your-face performance from Sandler, who finally smashes through the comedy ceiling of the stunted man-child schlub roles that have mostly defined his acting career. Festooned with gleaming white false choppers, a dyed El Diablo goatee, tinted wire-rim glassed and tiny diamond pierced earrings, he plays Howard as a puffed-out blowfish splashing around in an ocean ruled by ruthless, cutthroat sharks. Sandler dives deep, and he bites down hard—but Howard is also a schlub, and he’s a dangerous, desperately deluded one, an addict controlled by dark passions and desires, driven by money and greed, an omnivore whose driving hunger can only be sated by the next big score.
Will that score work out the way Howard wants it—the way he needs it?
The plot gets thick with characters and cameos. Fans of the 1970s TV series Taxi will enjoy seeing Judd Hirsch as Gooey, a member of Howard’s big, extended Jewish family. John Amos, who has more than 100 TV and movie credits, has a 10-second appearance as Howard’s next-door neighbor, where he’s noted for his starring role on the sitcom Good Times. Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) plays a customer “wrangler” for Howard’s shop, who becomes the middleman when a superstar basketball player (former NBA power forward Kevin Garnett, playing himself) covets Howard’s prized rock, believing it to be a talisman of good fortune on the court. Pop singer The Weeknd also appears as himself, causing a flareup of friction when he gets a bit too close to Howard’s workplace squeeze.
Uncut Gems isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s punchy, provocative and intentionally unsettling. Any movie that takes you along, as the camera goes deep inside a claustrophobic mining shaft, later just as deep into a character’s colon, then into the oozy opening of a bullet hole—well, you can certainly say it’s a wild, woozy ride.
But it’s one worth taking to watch Adam Sandler polish up a part to reveal there’s much more to him than being a genial, feel-good goofball—even in a movie that’s more slime than sunshine.