- Uncut Gems
- Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
- Starring Adam Sandler, Julia Fox and Kevin Garnett
- Classification R
- 135 minutes
It is a good thing that I’ve never been offered the opportunity to interview Adam Sandler – the man would probably slap me in the face. And with good reason.
For years, it has been so easy to backhand-compliment the actor as Hollywood’s smartest idiot. The man makes lazily stupid movies, which just so happens to be one of the smartest things you can do in the modern streaming era. Kudos to the actor for recognizing the fact that most of us don’t want to be artistically tested or emotionally engaged on a weeknight, and we would much rather zone out to one of his half-hearted-but-full-farted dumb-dumb Netflix productions such as The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler or Murder Mystery. It is submental comfort over bare-minimum effort, and it has made Adam Sandler and his many fellow Saturday Night Live veterans fabulously wealthy. (There is a reason that Rob Schneider can afford a Tesla.)
Every now and then, though, the Sandman grows up. He trades in his oversized tees and basketball shorts and tossed-off gags and Kevin James cameos for a more mature screen persona and presence. He looks for material and collaborators who challenge his (sincerely) wide range, instead of yes-men who flatter his long-in-the-tooth man-boy shtick. There are false starts and well-meaning misfires and outright bad decisions along the way – James L. Brooks’s Spanglish, Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me, Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children – but exactly once every seven years, the world gets to see the other side of Adam Sandler. And it is pretty damn glorious. In 2002, there was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. In 2009, there was Judd Apatow’s Funny People (yes, I’m serious). And this year, there’s Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems. The only difference today is I’m not sure that Sandler can ever go back to his comfortable world of Netflix trash. Uncut Gems proves that Capital-C Cinema needs Capital-A Actor Adam Sandler, and vice versa.
A 135-minute anxiety attack disguised as a movie, Uncut Gems is a gritty and unrelenting masterpiece – a thrilling and deeply dirty ode to not only a sub-genre of scum cinema and drippy-filth purveyors that the New York Safdie brothers grew up idolizing (Abel Ferrara and Al Goldstein loom large), but an aggressive tribute to the fuming rage and stunted potential of the Sandman himself. The actor is in nearly every frame of Uncut Gems and slashes the entire feature with a cutting hook: laugh all you want, but this is how I win.
Sandler’s avatar here is Howard Ratner, a constantly yelling, permanently stressed-out Manhattan jeweller who is one deal away from either imploding or rocketing off into the New York skyline. Howard scamps and rattles around Manhattan’s Diamond District like an amphetamine-powered rodent, trading favours and spreading lies in order to control and further his twin vices: gambling and hustling, if there is even a difference between the two. Either way, at the opening of the film Howard is deep in debt to his mobbed up brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), on the outs with both his wife (Idina Menzel) and his mistress (a breakout performance from Julia Fox), and trying to convince various real-life superstars (musician The Weeknd and NBA legend Kevin Garnett play themselves) to buy into one of his many sparkling schemes. For Howard, there is always one more score, one more deal, one more diamond-crusted Furby [yep] to nab out of someone else’s hand. He digs himself further into trouble purely for the manic rush of figuring out a way to escape his own burial.
Howard is such an intensely intense character – a despicable degenerate whom we cannot but help root for – that plunking anyone other than Sandler into the role seems unimaginable. The actor brings the totality of his many terrible career decisions and compresses them into a nervy nub of self-loathing energy that is wonderfully hypnotic to behold. The rare moments when Sandler is not onscreen feel acutely, distressingly small, and a panic sets in: where’s Howard? Is Howard okay? When are we going to get to see Howard again? For all the many times I had previously prayed that Adam Sandler would simply go away, now I could simply not stomach his absence.
Whatever praise heads toward Sandler should be tripled in the direction of the Safdies. The siblings, who have experience turning mainstream icons into earring-clad scumbags thanks to 2017′s Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time, start big and fast and grimy – after an opening that pays homage to the underground horrors of The Exorcist, the directors dive deep into the under-the-skin horrors of the human body, tracing the inside of Howard’s colon – and do not stop to take a breath for one single vulgar moment. The eye-popping, stomach-churning, nerve-rattling aesthetic that the siblings have concocted and perfected feels similar to a Vice Magazine circa 2012 article come to life, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. (Added bonus: The film features the most realistic depiction of a Passover Seder ever committed to film. Its Blu-ray should henceforth be as compulsory a contemporary Jewish artifact as the Maxwell House Haggadah.)
By the end of Uncut Gems, I was shaken and rattled and absolutely exhausted. I was in the perfect state, then, to plop down on my couch and drift off to one of Sandler’s Netflix writeoffs. But I only wanted to watch Uncut Gems again. I needed to remind myself of how much Adam Sandler can, and should, do. Even if it killed me.
Uncut Gems opens Dec. 25 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net), Dec. 26 at the Cinema Moderne in Montreal (cinemamoderne.com), Jan. 3 in Ottawa, Jan. 10 in Calgary and Edmonton; and Jan. 17 in Vancouver and Victoria