Uncut Gems

            It has been said that comedic acting is far more difficult than dramatic acting. If that’s true, then Adam Sandler just might be the greatest actor of our time. Having spent decades putting out a slew of movies regarded by many as among the worst of all time (though I still love them all), his name is still able to draw a crowd even for his most dismal fare because he’s such a joy to watch and has managed to entrance many an audience despite a multitude of horribly annoying characters. Unfortunately for Sandler, the claim that comedic acting is hardest has little value to awards bodies and most general audiences, so he has mostly suffered having his acting talent overlooked since his dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. With Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler returns to a dramatic role in full force and delivers possibly the best performance, and maybe the best film, of his entire career.

            The Safdie brothers garnered widespread acclaim for their previous film Good Time, which starred Robert Pattinson in a characteristically excellent performance, but Uncut Gems may be the film that propels them fully into the mainstream, having secured Martin Scorsese as a producer and now opened already in a few theaters to tremendous success with a full wide release coming. Like Good Time, Uncut Gems is a race against the clock crime film driven by its character work and unafraid to show the grime and sleaziness of a city and its people.

            Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a jewel dealer with a gambling addiction, as he attempts to resolve his debts by making bigger and riskier bets. He hopes for the big win that can wipe the slate clean and let him repair his personal and professional relationships, and he sees an uncut opal he acquired from Ethiopian Jews as a way to make that happen, but when Kevin Garnett (playing himself) becomes obsessed with the opal and asks to hold onto it, Howard can’t help but give in and lend the gem. Such is the tragedy of Howard Ratner. Whenever he has a chance to redeem himself, he has to take another chance that he hopes will pay off in a bigger way than simply resolving his debts, knowing he forgoes the certainty of resolving his situation but so addicted to the thrill of gambling that the ensuing difficulties matter very little to him even as he’s threatened and beaten on numerous occasions.

            Howard’s choices to put himself in increasingly stressful situations without much chance for reward may very well be the point for him. The thrill wouldn’t be there without the chance for pain. But whether it was the character’s intention to cause anxiety inducing situations to occur to him, it was certainly a conscious effort on the part of the Safdie brothers to make a film that would have that effect on the audience. The film doesn’t have much in the way of traditional action sequences, like fights or chase scenes, but it gets the heart racing far more than any action film of late and I was kept up for hours after the film just trying to calm down. The scenes of groups of characters shouting at each other that permeate the film are integral to keeping the viewer alert and hanging on to every pause like a lifeline, and moments where basketball games unfold with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line or enforcers arrive to collect debts are of course rife with tension, but it is the quieter moments that truly make the film stressful and uncomfortable to watch. From colonoscopies to school plays to holiday dinners with family, it becomes clear that Howard’s life causes him extreme discomfort and the gambling, despite all the dangers it entails, is an easier escape for him.

            Though Howard is a horribly misguided person with no care for anyone but himself (and even that is questionable with the sheer disregard he shows for his own well-being), he is magnetic, and I couldn’t help but want to see him win. A part of this is, as in Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, Uncut Gems is an opportunity to live vicariously through its characters and, though they are unequivocally bad people, it’s an exhilarating time, even when it all goes wrong. However, the biggest part of the desire to see Howard succeed comes from Sandler’s performance. He brings a certain warmth to even his most despicable characters. It’s a warmth that has brought depth to those same characters and when he finally has material to back up his talent, he is undeniably great. But even without the right material, it’s that warmth that kept the world coming back to him after Jack and Jill so I think he’ll do fine.


A Review

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