Adam Sandler is having a pretty good 2019. He made a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live; he re-teamed with Jennifer Aniston for the fairly watchable Murder Mystery on Netflix; and, oh yeah, he has just made what is, by far, the greatest film of his beautifully erratic career.
With Uncut Gems, Sandler joins forces with directors Benny and Josh Safdie (makers of the excellent Robert Pattinson vehicle Good Time) and delivers the kind of dramatic performance—fully committed and thoroughly proficient—he’s hinted at in the past with strong efforts in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. As Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry-store owner and gambling addict, Sandler catapults himself into the upper echelon of today’s fine actors. Not bad for the creative force behind Grown Ups 2.
It’s 2012, and Howard has gambling debts with a bunch of criminals, including Arno (Eric Bogosian), a relative who doesn’t give a shit that they’re related: Arno is owed money, and Howard will suffer greatly if he doesn’t deliver.
Howard’s solution is to obtain a black opal from Ethiopia, worth upwards of $1 million. That opal could free him of all his debt and set him on the path to prosperity, especially because NBA star Kevin Garnett (yes, that’s Garnett playing himself) is ready to give him all kinds of money, because he thinks the stone has powers.
Simply selling the stone at auction and solving his problems would be too easy for Howard; Sandler portrays him as a hyped-up, out-of-his-mind kook who screws up at every turn. Whether it’s with his store, his soon-to-be-gone wife (Idina Menzel) or his well-meaning mistress (Julia Fox), Howard is completely incapable of doing the right thing.
Sandler’s comedic abilities come into play, because Howard is so messed up that it’s often funny, and Sandler constantly mines the humor in that darkness. But in the end, Sandler isn’t in this for laughs—and Howard winds up being a complete character study: a sad man, addicted to chaos, who doesn’t know when to quit.
This is one of those roles that couldn’t have been played better by anybody else. Sandler was the actor the Safdies had in mind when they were writing the script, and while it took a couple of tries, they finally got their man—and they delivered a masterpiece.
The film doesn’t just thrive thanks to the performances; it’s bursting with style and originality. The Safdies adopt a visual and sound style that makes Howard’s crazed adventure a swirling trip. It’s edited with the sort of electricity that keeps one riveted, with psychedelic trips inside opals—and even Howard’s colon. Apart from being one of the year’s best films, it’s also one of the most original.
So what in the hell is going on with the awards so far? After the National Board of Review named Sandler its best actor, he got snubbed by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. (The critics guild I belong to, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, recently named him Best Actor.) Sandler more than deserves his first Oscar nomination here. His work stands alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Adam Driver’s in Marriage Story as the year’s best.
How will Sandler top this work? Honestly, I don’t think he can, but that’s not a dig on him: Uncut Gems is an example of finding an actor, finding his strengths, and displaying them in a way that amounts to perfection. Sandler will do more great things in his career, but it won’t surprise me if this is his apex.
Uncut Gems opens Friday, Dec. 24, at theaters across the valley.