Considering his brilliance in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Adam Sandler normally doesn’t show off his talent. But in this 2019 independent thriller, he’s certainly outstanding and in award-winning form.
Events get underway in Ethiopia, 2010, where miners get their hands on a rather rare black opal.
Two years later, we catch up with Howard Ratner (Sandler) in New York’s Diamond District.
And we meet him in rather unusual fashion. Here you can see the film’s often remarkable use of music in action. And our main character in an unusual moment of quiet.
The style of music is similar to Punch-Drunk love in many respects. Pulsating in and out of the film at key moments.
He’s a fast-talking, sometimes amiable, often infuriating gambling addict in $100,000 debt—he needs to pay that back to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), who’s had enough of Ratner’s risk taking and is now spying on his antics.
Meanwhile, Ratner’s marriage has collapsed with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who’s also fed up with his compulsive personality disorder.
Ratner is dating his younger employee, Julia De Fiore (Julia Fox).
At his store one day, his assistant Dermany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings basketball legend Kevin Garnett (played by himself, as he is a now retired basketball legend) to the shop to buy jewellery.
That coincides with the arrival of the black opal, which is stored secretively in some salmon.
For Ratner, his plan is to sell that at auction and raise $1 million to pay off his debts and have a nicer earner on the side.
However, he shows it to Garnett who takes great interest in it—he asks for the opal as a good luck memento at an upcoming game. He hands over his NBA championship ring as a loan.
Ratner reluctantly agrees and, as you might expect, that decision triggers off all manner of anxiety-inducing decisions over the coming 90 minutes.
As Uncut Gems is a film about addiction. Howard Ratner is a gambling addict—he doesn’t seem to particularly thrill in the financial rewards, more the buzz he gets off taking insane risks.
And that’s placed him in a disastrous financial position.
As the viewer, his infuriating antics begin when he immediately pawns Garnett’s ring to place a bet on the basketball player in his game that evening.
He wins the bet and is overwhelmed, feeling he’s finally made it big.
However, he’s soon ambushed by his brother-in-law Arno and his hired heavies—Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik).
The former is particularly belligerent and has a clear hatred of Ratner. As they ambush him, they strip him naked and Arno reveals he stopped Ratner’s bet as he owes Arno enough money already. So, he’s lost the cash.
That all develops from the family attending a school play.
Now, as this is a new film we struggled to find many supporting clips on YouTube. But here’s one of the writers and directors to take your through the thrills of the scene.
What continues to develop from this point on are a series of confounding, infuriating, and perplexing developments—you’ll be in aware at how Howard Ratner can so consistently screw his life up.
We don’t want to reveal much else, to be honest. His life spirals out of control, moving from one issue to the next.
And it’s bloody anxiety inducing. Along with this gambling addiction, we suggest Uncut Gems highlights the capricious nature of capitalism.
It’s a world where insane risk taking can reap rewards—or disaster. Where wealth is seen as the fairytale ending and the answer to all of our dreams.
Yet Howard Ratner is already in a luxurious and comfortable environment. He just ruins it by pursuing greater heights.
And as the film plays out and he pushes for his ultimate score, the viewer realises nothing at all will ever make this man complete.
He could bag $100 million and he’d bet it all in an instant for the visceral thrill.
And for us, that’s why Uncut Gems is a piece of brilliant cinema. It’s not perfect, as the closing section we found a bit tedious (as opposed to exhilarating, which the writers and directors Josh and Benny Safdie were no doubt aiming for).
But it’s relentless, emotionally draining, and an enthralling experience.
He’s made some terrible, terrible films. There’s no denying it. Lazy comedies that, inexplicably, rake in hundreds of millions.
What’s frustrated us since seeing Punch-Drunk Love (2002) back in 2008 was realising Adam Sandler is a brilliant actor.
So why is he squandering that making crap comedies? Well, he has done a few more obscure serious roles he’s excelled in since Punch-Drunk Love. Yet they kind of went unnoticed.
But Uncut Gems is different and really got a lot of media attention and film buff buzz.
The Oscars may have snubbed him, but the Independent Film Spirit Awards handed him the Best Actor gong.
And we really enjoyed his self-deprecating speech mocking himself rather mercilessly.
It makes us wonder… where the hell is that comedic wit in his other films? A viewing of Jack & Jill (2012) and you’ll be convinced the man is an idiot.
Mark Kermode of the Church of Wittertainment has been scathing over the years towards Sandler—who’s never been on the BBC show.
But credit where credit is due, Kermode lavished Sandler with praise for his performance.
So, what we hope for now (given how stunningly wealthy Sandler is anyway—does he need to do more generic comedy romps?) is the actor goes off and does similar projects to Uncut Gems.
The film isn’t perfect, for sure, and we don’t think it’s a masterpiece. Despite critics suggesting otherwise.
But Sandler’s performance is outstanding. Faultless. To do something like that, you must be very smart. And you must be very talented.
Mr. Sandler—focus all of that, at 53, on similar projects. An Oscar awaits. And many great performances are there for the taking.