There’s a level of fame that can be achieved that makes an audience so well versed with an actor’s persona that the persona is perpetually attached to the characters the actor portrays. Names like Pacino, Denzel, and Downey have acquired that infamy, but one wouldn’t normally include Adam Sandler with those names. Yet, in Uncut Gems, Sandler is not only the anchor for the entire ship, but our familiarity with Sandler (whether it be the goofball, the spaz, the romantic, the unexpectedly thoughtful) that informs our perspective of a tour de force performance that was arguably snubbed for a best actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
In fact, the entire film nabbed 0 Academy Award nominations. This only matters if you think the Academy is purely a curator of quality, an increasingly laughable assertion as the general public becomes more familiar with the institution’s questionable tactics and history. Besides, Uncut Gems is not an “Oscar Movie” in the sense that, despite being among 2019’s best-reviewed films, it doesn’t fit the mold of what you would expect from a highly nominated film. It is a loud, obnoxious, audacious film that rides or dies by unbearable characters and questionable ethics. Yet somehow, it’s glorious.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler with a big mouth and a penchant for big scores. His gambling addiction has him in heavy debt but doesn’t deter him from his latest scheme – selling a rare stone to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Garnett borrows the stone as he feels it is a good luck charm for him while he endures a grueling NBA Playoffs as a member of the Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, Ratner manipulates Garnett in hopes of landing a major payment for the stone.
But the best-laid plans don’t go so easy, and neither does much of anything in Ratner’s life. He’s a miserable, shallow man who’s torpedoed his marriage to his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who plans to divorce him any day now. He’s barely welcome at home, by his wife or the daughter who’s on to his act and lies, but luckily for him, he has a fancy apartment in the city so he can have sex with his mistress – who doubles as his jewelry store employee, Julia (Julia Fox).
It’s not clear what Julia would see in a man like Howard, who is not only twice her age but also unreliable and cruel. Perhaps she really does love him, or perhaps she sees the benefits of sleeping with a rich boss. Regardless, their tumultuous relationship is often the backdrop to Howard’s progression throughout the film. While we witness him dodge and swindle various loan sharks, skeevy acquaintances, and bitter partners (including the always excellent Lakeith Stanfield as Demany) we see his personal and professional life continue to collide and crumble. The aim here, employed by Sandler and directors Josh & Benny Safdie, is a balancing act that relies on both sympathy and schadenfreude.
Howard erroneously believes he can talk his way out of any problem with his loved ones, and he can scheme his way out of any problem with his business partners. We get the sense that there was a time where all of these tricks worked, which explains how he obtained his money and family, but the Safdie brothers choose to show us the time in his life where the tricks don’t work like they used to. We see Howard confronted with a solvable dilemma, exacerbate it due to incompetence or arrogance, come up with one lucky ass idea that brings him upstream again, then see his efforts dashed by an unforeseen mishap. This is all played out through chase scenes, shady backdoor bets, and a host of screaming matches. It’s a deliberate, but exhausting exercise in character psychology that tests the patience of the audience and their ability to withstand how unbearable a guy Howard can prove to be, but Sandler and the Safdies are able to pull it off.
But this is hardly just the product of just 3 people. Cinematographer Darius Khondji does an exceptional job at bringing to life the gritty, dreamlike, surreal aesthetic to the film which perfectly matches the tone of the events. From what would typically be mundane scenes, like characters walking through the city, to exciting nightclub parties, the film is visually arresting without ever giving the sense that it’s showing off.
Additionally, Sandler’s performance would be wasted if he had no one to play off of, but luckily the supporting cast is terrific. Garnett has a legitimate future in movies if he so chooses. Even though he’s playing himself, he has genuine screen presence, charisma, and timing. He and Sandler match wits and camaraderie in a naturalistic manner, and Sandler never outpaces him (I also enjoy how Sandler manages to make Garnett’s initials sound like one word – ‘Kaygee’). There’s a similar rapport between Sandler and Fox. Even though their characters appear to be a mismatched couple, there is chaotic chemistry between the two that plausibly gives you the sense that “I can see these two being a couple until the roof eventually caves in.”
This is partially why Howard is such a compelling character – the intrigue isn’t just in his outsized personality, but in how he meshes with a diverse group of people. It’s in dealing with the supporting characters where his morals and flaws are consistently shown. We learn early on about the origins of the stone, and why Howard puts so much value on it. Garnett, on the other hand, is intrigued by the stone’s origins and the people from that region. Garnett’s thoughtfulness is contrasted with Howard’s shallow cynicism – it’s clear to see whose side the filmmakers are on.
Which makes Howard solely responsible for how his decisions turn his life upside down. The audience is willing to give Howard a certain level of leeway since we like Sandler and partially want him to succeed even if we think his character is a destructive person. But there’s only so much leeway a character can earn, both from the audience and the people around him – the gradual effect of gambling addiction. It’s not what a bet can earn you, it’s about if you can live with the consequences of a loss.