Adam Sandler is having a pretty good year in 2019. He’s made a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live as host, and he reteamed with Jennifer Aniston for the actually 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—that being 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 built up healthy gambling debts with a bunch of criminals, including relative Arno (Eric Bogosian), who doesn’t give a shit that they are related. He’s owed money, and Howard will suffer greatly if he doesn’t deliver.
Howard’s solution is to obtain a black opal straight from Ethiopia, one that can be worth upwards of $1 million. That opal could free him of all 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, who Sandler portrays as a hyped-up, out-of-his-mind kook who screws up every chance he can get. Whether it’s his store, or 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 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 who doesn’t know when to quit—a man addicted to chaos.
This is one of those roles that, quite simply, couldn’t have been played better by anybody else. Sandler was always the one 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 delivered a masterpiece.
The film doesn’t just thrive on performances; it’s bursting with style and originality in its overall approach. 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 you riveted, with psychedelic trips inside opals, and even Howard’s colon, to boot. Apart from being one of the year’s best films, it’s also one of its most original.
So what the hell is going on with the awards so far in 2019? After the National Board of Review named Sandler its best actor, he got snubbed for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. (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 DiCaprio’s in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Driver’s in Marriage Story as the year’s best.
So 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 performance perfection. Sandler will do more great things in his career, but it won’t surprise me if this should amount to his apex. That’s the highest praise he can get.