How many times this millennium have you been able to truly say, ‘now that’s a good Adam Sandler performance’? It’s probably not many; there was Punch Drunk Love in 2002, Spanglish in 2004, and…that’s likely it, despite there being 42 film credits since 2000.
Having made that observation, I’m pleased to say that Uncut Gems, the tale of a shady jewelry store owner who struggles with an addiction to gambling, is Sandler’s best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in Punch Drunk Love near the turn of the century. It’s a manic, aggressive performance, one that can come close to causing some anxiety, as the audience struggles with the glimpse into the life of Howard Ratner (Sandler).
Ratner can’t help himself, it seems. Separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend, he sabotages himself at almost every turn. He takes advantage of his friends, his family, he spends money he doesn’t have, and he lies whenever it suits him. It’s exhausting, watching Ratner speed around Manhattan, navigating a minefield that he himself created through negligence and greed.
The interesting thing is that Sandler takes his usual comic insanity and molds it for Ratner, tamping it down and controlling it, to the point where the audience wants him to succeed. It would have been incredibly easy for him to summon up the days of shouting at golf balls or speaking with a child’s voice. Thanks to Sandler, Ratner is both likable and not; he’s personable and funny one moment, and a raging moron the next.
It’s a very loud film; Benny and Josh Safdie, the brothers who co-directed the movie, take full advantage of the New York setting. There’s a constant stream of noise and sound, which threatens to overtake the dialogue at all points. Ratner and other characters speak at a regular volume, which means the audience has to truly concentrate on what’s happening. It almost seems as though the Safdie brothers enjoy making us uncomfortable, because not only is the cacophony of the city nigh-deafening, Rather is constantly weaving in and out of groups of pedestrians and traffic, making it even more difficult to keep track of.
Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, and Julia Fox round out the main cast, while Kevin Garnett – yes, that Garnett, of NBA fame – joins the proceedings, portraying himself circa-2012. He’s actually not half bad in the limited time he gets, and his performance is bolstered by some old NBA footage to take the viewer back in time seven years. Other celebrity cameos include Canadian musician The Weeknd (I suppose in 2012, he had not quite become as famous as he is today), and to a lesser degree, New York radio host/personality for WFAN Mike Francesa, which is a fun nod to sports fans everywhere.
During the course of Uncut Gems, Ratner goes on a journey that ultimately culminates in an opportunity that could end up as one of his biggest achievements – or greatest failures. Rather than spoil it, just know that the ending of this film is as chaotic as the rest of it – and it shouldn’t be any other way, as thanks to that frenetic energy, Uncut Gems ends up as one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the year.
Uncut Gems hits theatres in North America on December 13, 2019.
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