There’s an old cliche in film criticism for when an infamously comedic star tries a dramatic performance: “tears of a clown”. Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and their ilk defined the notion that a funnyman could hide incredible darkness or profundity and harness it to create richly engaging characters audiences would never expect to see them play. Adam Sandler — perhaps the most maligned comedy movie star, or maybe movie star period, of the last 25 years — has done so many jumps into this region of screen acting that it’s almost created a new subgenre of film. Although, if you spent months shooting Pixels, you’d probably want to make an auteur drama as soon as possible too. If Punch Drunk-Love locked into the anxious, frightened side of Sandler’s bombastic screen persona — typically playing an arrogant man constantly on the verge of screaming at an incompetent service worker — and Funny People found the sadness and isolation, Josh and Benny Safdie have opened up a whole new spectral layer of Sandler that exposes panic, rage, mania and an insatiable lust for winning; Howard Ratner may be a New York diamond district scumbum, Sandler an LA megastar; but in spirit they are one and the same, deeply ambitious men who are 99.9% certain they’ve got their priorities straight. Uncut Gems — easily the most exhilarating American film since Mission: Impossible — Fallout and a truly classical performance showcase for Sandler in the sense of Pacino in Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon — exists in that 0.1%.
It’s 2012. Howard “Howie Bling” Ratner sells gold-plated furbies to rich idiots on West 47th Street, makes risky sports bets with his profits and employs his young mistress Julia (Julia Fox), who lives in his apartment. He’s married to Idina Menzel, but not for much longer. When NBA star Kevin Garnett visits his showroom and becomes deeply attached to an Ethiopian black opal, a series of intensely frustrating mishaps set in motion the worst compounding headache of Howie’s life. He even assaults The Weeknd.
The brothers Safdie give their Good Time aesthetic — let’s call it “fast and greasy” — a shiny upgrade with a bigger budget and the powerful new tool that is Sandler, playing Howie with such vigour that you feel he could’ve probably directed himself. I feel unqualified to praise the level of intensity and insight present on his face, in his voice and in how Howie interacts with his surroundings. It’s not about whether he’s sympathetic, or principled, or good, or evil, or right, or wrong. He’s Howie, a man we’ve known our entire lives and understand fully the motivations of, even when he’s doing things that make absolutely no rational sense.
“He’s Howie, a man we’ve known our entire lives”
Sandler doesn’t allow this to be “tears of a clown” stuff, even when he ultimately ends up in tears. Howie is pathetic, and definitely smells terrible, but he’s a very funny person to hang out with. In the film’s standout moment of levity, he hides in Julia’s closet sexting her while peeping as she undresses; we know he’s not gonna keep hiding for long; Darius Khondji’s lens hovers in front of his tinted glasses as sleaze creeps across his face. Daniel Lopatin’s ethereal score would be sleepy if everything else happening wasn’t so extremely stressful: its synths and… I’m gonna say wind chimes(?) a necessary flipside to the barrage of hysteria happening in Howie’s life. Just when you think the tension has peaked, there’s another twist and another act begins. Even at a heavy 135 minutes, you couldn’t possibly accuse this film of outstaying its welcome; its world is so textured and tangible, you sense there is much more to explore. When Howie makes his climactic “This is how I win” speech to Garnett, highlighting in a satirically capitalistic tone the value of financial game-playing to his self worth, the film pulls together its themes of male selfishness, urban desperation and post-stereotype Jewish exceptionalism with a clarity and authorial tightness that’s as staggeringly impressive as it is uncomfortable.
“Its world is so textured and tangible, you sense there is much more to explore”
Given his lack of Broadway interest, it’s likely this is the closest Sandler will ever come to playing King Lear (although a Sandler-starring Shakespeare parody movie full of fart jokes doesn’t sound like a bad idea) and it’s everything you could’ve dreamed it would be. To construct an original film, and a relatively expensive one at that, around one performer and one soon-to-be iconic character takes a level of trust and commitment to an actor, and to the medium of acting itself, that has been rarely seen since the 1970s. The Sandler/Safdie collaboration demonstrated here has such a special spark, a lightning-in-a-bottle magic, that one almost wishes both star and directors would retire and leave this as their legacy. Yet there is so much more yet to see from everyone involved in Uncut Gems (I’ve scarcely even mentioned the great work done by Fox and Garnett).
With the soul of After Hours and the spirit of Big Daddy, this firmly ascends Sandler to a tier of underrated actors who let their own success get in the way of the world’s respect. What a diamond in the rough of current American film.