From the actor behind ‘Billy Maddison’, ‘Grown Ups 2’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ comes an unbelievable 180 degree-turn. Directed by The Safdie Brothers, ‘Uncut Gems’ is the breakout serious role Adam Sandler needed to put him back in the hearts of audiences and critics alike. Presented as a two-hour anxiety attack, the film is a masterful blend of thrills, drama and tension.
The narrative follows Howard Ratner, a Jewish American owner of a jewellery shop in the heart of Manhattan’s diamond district. A gambling addict, he owes a lot of money to a lot of people, much to the chagrin of his estranged wife and current mistress (two different people). However, his luck seems to be about to change after he buys a rare black opal from Africa valued at $1,000,000.
Adam Sandler plays Howard, and it’s the standout performance of his career by an immeasurable distance. Visceral, brave, exposing and heartfelt, he has clearly just been coasting through 20 years of cheesy comedies to get to this point. The worthy winner of the Independent Spirit award, he was expected to be nominated for an Oscar. The fact he wasn’t is a shame, but does nothing to detract from the unbelievable performance he gives.
The film also stars new-comer Julia Fox as his girlfriend/mistress Julia, and she equally gives a great performance, particularly in a scene outside a nightclub where she offers a whole range of emotions. Idina Menzel (‘Frozen’) stars as Howard’s estranged wife, Lakeith Stanfield (‘Sorry to Bother You’) plays Howard’s assistant, and basketball all-star Kevin Garnett plays a fictional version of himself who becomes obsessed with the opal.
As mentioned earlier, the film is a two-hour anxiety attack and that’s not said lightly. The film takes pride in the fact that the tension is never dropped, not for a second. Characters talk over one another, the pace of the film is constant and relentless, and the decisions that Howard makes, while justified, are infuriating to the poor viewer. All of this culminates in a momentum filled thriller that takes the viewer by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
The cinematography, by ‘In Bruges’ shooter Darius Khondji, helps add to the intense tone. Shot on 35mm film, it adds literal grain and grit to a gritty story. Aided by intense close ups, beautiful lighting and an incredibly bizarre yet phenomenal opening shot, the picture helps add to the attack on the senses that the film presents. The score by Daniel Lopatin is a brilliantly unexpected 80’s score. The sounds that appear in it are so out of place for the environment that it actually becomes fitting. Beautiful synth melodies and electronic strings juxtapose the harsh New York setting, much like the beauty of the opal against the tragedy of the narrative it’s involved in.
Overall, Uncut Gems is a stunning film that blends incredible performances with a tense and relentless story. Adam Sandler’s choice to take this role has not only redeemed him for his previous movie crimes, it’s also proven that he’s spent far too long making daft and unfunny comedies, and that he should have instead been enjoying the critical acclaim of serious drama.