Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jeweller and compulsive gambler in this dark comedy. Photograph from A24
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Review: You’ve never seen Adam Sandler more alive onscreen than in the manic ‘Uncut Gems’

This new Safdie brothers effort is cinema at its most frantic.
Andrew Paredes | Feb 03 2020

Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox

Adam Sandler has always been kinda creepy. Even when Hollywood was inserting him into cookie-cutter comedies like Happy Madison or 50 First Dates (really, how could an amnesiac like Drew Barrymore take this guy’s word on anything?), there was always a transgressive glint in his eye, a feeling that he could either grope you or sucker punch you. 

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The genius of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (in which Sandler and his leading lady Emily Watson express their love by listing all the ways they would mutilate each other) was that the director leaned into that creepiness. With Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers have done Anderson one better: by casting the star in a vibrant, adrenaline-fueled dark comedy that is miles better than Anderson’s overblown romantic-comedy.

Julia Fox plays a feisty jewelry saleswoman who's sleeping with her gambling addict boss (Adam Sandler).

Sandler is Howard Ratner, a jeweler who drips bling—whether it’s from his midlife crisis-pierced ears, his too-shiny teeth, his too-young leather jacket, or the high-maintenance mistress he keeps employed in his shop (Julia Fox). He’s a New York descendant of Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo, perhaps better off in circumstances due to his business and rich Jewish father-in-law (Judd Hirsch), but the same in his unceasing huckster jabbering.

But there is desperation underneath Howard’s swagger. His wife Dinah (Frozen’s Idina Menzel) wants to call it quits. And, worse, Howard is an inveterate gambler who owes debts all over town. But Howard has a plan: He’s hoping to escape from the cycle of robbing one shady character to pay another by profiting off an uncut, illegally imported Ethiopian opal, which arrives at his airless, fortified shop the same moment as his middleman Demany (Knives Out’s Lakeith Stanfield) brings around NBA star Kevin Garnett (charmingly playing himself). 

Howard Ratner (Sandler) with his middleman Demany (Knives Out’s Lakeith Stanfield) and NBA star Kevin Garnett (charmingly playing himself).

The basketball player is convinced the gem is a good-luck charm, endowed with a mysticism that the Safdie brothers set up at the very beginning by showing the precious rock being mined from deep underground. And speaking of that opening, the Safdies seamlessly elide from the horrors of “blood diamond” mining to the infinite expanse of the universe…to Howard’s lower digestive tract as he undergoes a colonoscopy. It’s an audacious and hilarious beginning, especially once you realize that Howard conked out as he is anally probed is all the comfort this relentless movie will ever give him.

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Sandler has never been more alive onscreen, balancing an addict’s desperation with a salesman’s optimism and delivering a performance that mines Howard’s sweaty humanity from his caustic loudness. And the Safdie brothers are there with him: They coaxed a vital performance out of Robert Pattinson in 2017’s wickedly fun Good Time, but here their spiraling storyline, whiplash twists and frenetic pacing are in lock-step with their leading man’s bravado. Uncut Gems is cinema at its most manic, cranked up to its highest voltage. You won’t find a more exhausting, exhilarating way to spend 135 minutes—bet on it.

Uncut Gems is currently streaming on Netflix

 

Photographs from A24