Adam Sandler has made a very successful career for himself in comedy, generally playing the same role in critically panned, commercially popular, movies. He has stretched a few times, most notably in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, yet audiences only seem to be interested when he is making vulgar jokes using goofy voices. Due to that, he rarely steps out of his regular onscreen persona. His newest project, the tense drama Uncut Gems, shows him as we have never seen him before. The result is a captivating character study featuring the best performance of his career.
Howard Ratner is a diamond dealer in New York City with a serious gambling addiction. He owes a lot of money to dangerous people and is unable to stop himself from risking it all. When basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) comes into his shop, Howard makes the mistake of showing him the precious opals he just bought. The rest of the movie consists of Howard trying to stay ahead of everyone else as he struggles with his angry wife, his much younger mistress and his business.
Uncut Gems (131 minutes without the end credits) is about addiction. It is about a man who does not feel alive unless everything is on the line. Every part of his life is about the gamble. On paper, it does not seem like Adam Sandler should be the star of something best described as deeply nerve-racking. After seeing it, I cannot think of any actor who could have portrayed Howard’s desperation, anger, desire and need with more raw power than Sandler did. Maybe there are a few who could have done it as well. But Sandler shows a man who cannot live without constantly chasing his high. No matter what anyone says, he knows he can get that win. All of his issues come from this obsession.
Sandler is not likable in the role. Even before the events of this story, his behavior has negatively impacted the lives of most of the people in his orbit. What he makes him is relatable, believable and, above all else, fascinating. It is not easy to watch him attempt to talk his way out of the unpleasant situations he puts himself in, yet I could not look away. He is so committed to who this man is that I forgot I was watching Sandler. He was just Howard Ratner. In a year full of tremendous acting, it may very well be the single best performance of 2019.
The directors are brothers Josh and Benny Safdie who last made the 2017 thriller Good Time. That was about a man trying to break his brother out of jail while fleeing from police. It had a breakneck pace that really put viewers in the uncomfortable headspace of the protagonist (wonderfully played by Robert Pattinson). You would not necessarily expect a drama about the personal and professional problems of a diamond dealer to feel like a thriller about a criminal on the run. Not only does it, but the pace feeds so perfectly into Howard’s mindset that it makes us experience the emotions as strongly as he does. The perilous highs and absurd lows are the whole point and their approach makes it so visceral. This is one of the most harrowing looks at addiction I have seen, though I do not recall hearing that word uttered even once. The Safdie’s have such a good control of tone, an important skill in a movie less interested in plot and more interested in personality and motivations.
One of the more intriguing primary elements of Uncut Gems is that Howard is Jewish. His religion is referenced many times, including a work colleague calling him “a crazy Jew,” and there is even a scene depicting a family Passover dinner. Also, the opal Howard is hoping will turn his fortunes around was originally discovered by Ethiopian Jews. The directors are Jewish, as are Sandler and Idina Menzel, who plays his wife. A couple of lines imply that Howard’s family is fairly religious and there is a stereotype that a lot of Jews work in the jewelry industry. However, in some ways, he could have belonged to any religion.
It is useful in showcasing another aspect of his life that has been discarded in favor of trying to win big. While he claims it as his faith, it is clear gambling is his actual religion. I think where his Judaism comes in handy is in the details. Some of the words he uses, the holiday traditions, etc., make the world of Uncut Gems more specific, more real. Showing parts of his Judaism as another thing in his life he has ruined helps create a well-rounded character that makes this truly memorable.
Some stories feel like they happen as you watch them. Uncut Gems is that kind of movie. We see, step by step, as Howard stumbles his way toward his destiny, which unfolds before our eyes. The end is inevitable only in the sense that he is incapable of living any other way. It is a continuously compelling character study centered on a fantastic performance that should certainly earn Adam Sandler at least an Oscar nomination, if not a win. Over the past decade, the Safdie brothers have gotten very good at crafting stories following difficult people as they spiral through poor decision making. If you are looking for a light-hearted crowd-pleaser, do not see Uncut Gems. It is a challenging experience, though a pretty great one.
4½ out of 5
Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner
LaKeith Stanfield as Demany
Julia Fox as Julia
Idina Menzel as Dinah
Kevin Garnett as himself
Eric Bogosian as Arno
Keith Williams Richards as Phil
Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie