Movie Review: Uncut Gems
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by Jason Koenigsberg
Adam Sandler has had a successful yet turbulent career as a movie star. From humble beginnings after his SNL days with small hits that became modern classics thanks to cable and home video with Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), and The Wedding Singer (1998), he soon became a huge box office star with mega hits like The Waterboy (1998), Big Daddy (1999), and Anger Management (2003). He also was one of the first big stars to make the transition to Netflix movies before it became more commonplace with films like The Ridiculous Six (2015), Sandy Wexler (2017), and The Week Of (2018). His popularity began to dwindle prior to his Netflix stage with diminished box office results for films like Jack and Jill (2011), That’s My Boy (2012), and Blended (2014). The quality of his films also started to become redundant as his features seemed like excuses to get a paid vacation for him and his costars and their families. But Adam Sandler deserved more credit than he usually received as an actor. Yes, some of the movies mentioned above are very funny, and some are derivative and inept to the point of being downright toxic, but Sandler would challenge himself every so often by stepping out of his comfort zone and making a movie with an established director such as Paul Thomas Anderson, James L. Brooks, and Jason Reitman. Unfortunately for him, every time he did take a risk with a movie role, audiences avoided it like the plague. Regardless of what the critics praised him for, the masses were not interested in seeing Adam Sandler do something other than an “Adam Sandler movie” so films like Punch Drunk Love (2002), Reign Over Me (2007), and Funny People (2009) remain either unseen or unappreciated by the masses and Adam Sandler returned to his comfort zone to make his usual shlock like Grown Ups 2 (2013) and made hundreds of millions of dollars from it. That being said, Uncut Gems belongs in the experimental category for Sandler and is very far from his usual shtick of what audiences expect. But make no mistake about it, this is one of his best performances in one of the best movies of his career.
Uncut Gems opens up with an overhead tracking shot of a desert in Ethiopia. It eventually focuses on some miners shouting and shows a graphic injury to one of their legs and then reveals some miners digging into the earth and uncovering a rock with actual “uncut gems”. The opening scene emphasizes their shiny luster before transitioning into our main character Howard Ratner (Sandler) getting a colonoscopy. The directors are letting us know that our main character is going to get it (pardon my French) in the ass, but that is the most sufficient metaphor for this drastic cut from Africa to Manhattan. Sandler plays Howard “Howie” Ratner as a charismatic New York jeweler always on the move, always looking for his next big score, and always looking to place a big bet with money he may not actually have. He encapsulates a lot of negative stereotypes about New Yorkers, and Jews and especially New York Jews that work in the diamond district. In a lot of ways Uncut Gems is about the Jewish experience from its humble beginnings in the desert to an overindulgent and superficial lifestyle based on false wheelings and dealings in New York City one of the richest, most sophisticated, and expensive places in the world. The movie reminds you Sandler’s character is a Jew and has a lot of Jewish imagery and all of the actors that surround him feel like real people off the streets of Manhattan, many of them are like New York radio personality Mike Francesa as a bookie, rapper The Weekend as himself, and it even has former NBA star Kevin Garnett starring as himself in a pivotal role regarding the movies plot.
The realistic performances add to Uncut Gems making it feel less like an Adam Sandler movie and more like a neorealist cinematic triumph. Sandler himself gives one of his bravest and most compelling performances. Yes he is Jewish and a New Yorker at heart so some of that may come off easy for him, however Adam Sandler plays one of the most selfish and self-destructive characters in recent years. His Howie Ratner is a degenerate gambler, liar, adulterer, and all around lowlife. Always putting his betting decisions before his family obligations he is digging his own grave with poor business choices and becoming more aloof from his wife and children. He is in a loveless marriage, his wife (Idina Menzel, who shows some real dramatic chops here) tells him he is pathetic and they are both aware that their relationship is beyond repair. His children are becoming disillusioned with their absentee father and he has no intention of healing those wounds. Only his employee/girlfriend/mistress named Julia, played by Julia Fox, shows any real empathy and adoration to him. As great as Adam Sandler is carrying every scene in Uncut Gems, Julia Fox is right there, profoundly supporting him in every scene they share. She adds a humanity to his character and therefore the entire film that makes it work as more than just a claustrophobic crime movie about a guy hedging his bets too thin as the walls close around him.
Uncut Gems contains the same kind of manic energy as Adam Sandler’s best film Punch Drunk Love (2002). They both involve him playing a sad sack loser with people on the wrong side of the law coming after him for money, but the main difference here is that Sandler plays one of the most unlikeable characters one could possibly ever portray. His Howie Ratner character is on par with Harvey Keitel’s corrupt cop from Bad Lieutenant (1992). Viewers may find this Sandler to be annoying or downright despicable, and he is, but he so compelling that he sure makes Uncut Gems one very electrifying narrative as he runs his personal and professional life into the ground with his gambling problem. The trippy music score adds a surreal element that ties into the theme about Judaism and our time on this earth and that millions of years from now we could be dug up as priceless gemstones connecting the miracle of life to the geological wonders that we value and destroy lives over.
The sole negative aspect about Uncut Gems is that the climax involves watching a character watching an old basketball game from 2012. Watching someone watching TV is not nearly as compelling as putting the viewer on the court and making them a part of the action and not just a spectator on the screen. It is nerve wracking only from the point of view of the main character, everyone else (especially Celtics fans who may remember the specifics of the playoff games against the Sixers) are not going to be on the edge of their seat as much as they could have been. That being said Uncut Gems is still a raucous and turbulent ride with very realistic acting and one of Adam Sandler’s career best performances.
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