Adam Sandler is on the form of his life in this scintillating, heart-in-mouth study of a desperate New York jeweller.
For some ten years now, Josh and Benny Safdie have been making movies about shitty people. Not just shitty – that’s not specific enough. Their central characters exude a frantic, chaotic energy, and have no qualms about screwing other people over in order to serve their own interests. By and large, they are also pathetic in that they might not necessarily be bad people, but they’ve definitely done bad things, and in scrambling to fix their own mess, often make those things worse in the process.
Howard Ratner is a pure Safdie creation. He’s a Jewish New Yorker who owns a high-end jewellery store in the city’s diamond district, catering largely to basketball players, dealing in Rolex watches and bedazzled Furbies on thick gold chains. He’s also tens of thousands of dollars in the hole to various debtors thanks to a crippling gambling addiction, and has a harebrained scheme to get rich quick, involving a large, rare, uncut black opal from Ethiopia.
Ratner is played by everyone’s favourite Netflix Original Superstar, Adam Sandler, who the Safdies had in mind for the role since they first came up with the concept back in 2009. For a while Jonah Hill was going to take the lead, but after watching Uncut Gems, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else shrugging on Howard’s leather jacket and Gucci loafers. Sandler has been the butt of every joke in Hollywood for years, churning out various affronts to cinema which include Jack and Jill, That’s My Boy, and, most recently, Murder Mystery. But every so often he likes to make a film like Funny People, or The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected), just to remind us that, actually, he’s capable of so much more than jokes about bodily fluids and persistent casual misogyny.
A lead role in a Safdie film must feel like a gift to any actor. From Ronald Bronstein in Daddy Longlegs and Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What to Robert Pattinson in Good Time, the characters they create are specific, fully-realised and remarkable. Unpleasant, certainly, but never for one second dull. As Ratner, Sandler is a fast-talking, scheme-loving dynamo. He gets under the skin of the character, most poignantly the deep-rooted addiction which constantly threatens to ruin him once and for all. He’s funny, of course, but he’s also cuts an incredibly tragic figure. He’s frustrating, yet somehow you sort of feel for him, despite all his manifold “faults”. It’s such a finely-calibrated performance, it feels like you could watch if for hours; better still, it helps to gain a real feel for the world in which this character functions. The outrageous, ostentatious behaviour all feels rooted in something real, something raw.
There’s also an acute sense of neurotic, nervous energy which means the film zips by, aided by Daniel Lopatin’s electro-synth score which amps up the tension to breaking point while also adding a hint of the fantastical. The film culminates in a basketball match which is heart-in-your-throat stuff, even for people with absolutely no interest in sports. Although the stakes for Ratner are not made explicit until very late on the film, by the time we get to the big game, we’re so invested in his erratic, anxiety-inducing decision-making, the Safdie brothers’ eventual sucker punch (because there’s always a sucker punch) stings even harder.
The five feature films that the Safdie brothers have made so far together form a series of snapshots of New York City. They are about desperate people doing desperate things to get by. In Uncut Gems they trade the grime and grit for a little polish, demonstrating that reckless greed and human rot aren’t limited to neighbourhood boundaries or upper/lower wealth brackets. Uncut Gems grabs you by the lapels and shakes you until you’re dizzy. It’s a bruising, desperate anxiety attack of a film that rips the rug out from under you when you least expect it. And, because it really cannot be said enough: Adam Sandler is on the form of his life.
Published 10 Sep 2019
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