In 2017, the Safdie Brothers, AKA Josh and Bennie Safdie, delivered Good Time, a frantic blast of chaotic cinematic energy. It follows Robert Pattinson through an escalating series of bad decisions and worse consequences. It’s a movie where you sit back, strap in, and exclaim, hot damn. To which their latest endeavor, Uncut Gems, says, hold my beer.
The two films share surface similarities. One terrible choice follows the next. Both feature a big star primarily known for something else, taking a chance and doing something risky—Pattinson in Good Time and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. Both show a nasty side of New York, though this time out it’s upscale shady masquerading as class versus down and dirty grit and grime. It’s really in the frantic propulsive narrative force where the two films find the most commonality. This is a white-knuckle, teeth grinding, heart attack of a film.
If Good Time is the synthesis of John Carpenter and the French New Wave, Uncut Gems plays like Greek tragedy, where hubris dooms our hero. Sandler, taking a break from his affected accent (Sandy Wexler) and donkey diarrhea (The Ridiculous Six) duties at Netflix, plays Howard Ratner. Howard is a high-end jeweler. As you probably assumed, he makes bad life choices, mostly revolving around sports gambling. When he acquires, at great personal risk and cost, a precious gem, it’s his ticket out of the hole. He gets close, so, so close. But he makes one more fateful wrong choice and embarks on an epic quest to extricate himself from a tangled web of his own prideful flaw.
What follows is frantic dash, a manic push to keep from being swallowed. Howard darts around New York, wheeling and dealing, sinking further into the hole with one crew to momentarily stave off repercussions from another. All the while, he fails to see he’s only digging himself deeper and deeper at every turn. Because of this, Uncut Gems is an insanely stressful watch. Howard constantly teeters on the edge, and as you sit in the theater, watching his situation get worse and worse, all you can do is hold your breath wait for it to collapse. Yet you can’t take your eyes off of the imminent disaster—it’s never about if, it’s about when.
I have a friend I’m actively trying to get to start an Adam Sandler podcast with me. (The premise is: we watch every Adam Sandler movie, one per episode, only when we work through his entire filmography, we start over at the beginning. And we do this until one of us dies. It will be called “Endless Sandler.”) Walking out of our screening, he turned to me and said, “Adam Sandler is going to win an Oscar, isn’t he?” To which I could only nod and mutter an affirmative.
Whether or not that last statement comes true, he certainly deserves to be in the conversation for the best performance of 2019. Uncut Gems serves as a reminder Adam Sandler can act his ass off when he so chooses. He’s astonishing, and, maybe it’s a recency bias, but as much as people love him in Punch Drunk Love, I don’t think he’s ever been this good. (Yet he remains Adam Sandler through and through, as the first time we meet him we’re literally inside his butthole, thanks to a colonoscopy.)
In reality, Howard is a bad guy. He cheats on his wife (Idina Menzel), is terrible to his mistress (Julia Fox), barely acknowledges his kids, jerks around business associates (LaKeith Stanfield), betrays the trust of customers (NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett), scams everyone, is always on the make, and only ever considers himself. But somehow the Safdies and Sandler make you root for him. He’s a shitty dude, but a likeable shitty dude. The affable charm and humor that make Sandler so personable and popular are on full display. He’s just kind of a schmuck who doesn’t mean any harm; he can’t help himself, and that humanity keeps him from becoming truly despicable. Instead of looking at Howard and thinking, “What a huge pile of crap,” we look at him, see Sandler’s infection, impish grin and somehow forgive his trespasses and root for him to get out of his own way.
As Uncut Gems crashes forward, ever forward, the Safdies ratchet up the pressure with little to no release—they never stop. And when it’s over, all you can do is go limp, inhale, and realize how long you’ve had your entire body clenched into a knot. Manic and pulse-pounding, with a blistering energy, this is one hell of a ride. [Grade: A]