Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Adam Sandler’s Overlooked Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (A24)

The decision to use Adam Sandler in a dramatic role or movie is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Sandler’s non-comedic performances are fascinating things, and the movies that deploy him that way are often fascinating as well. On the other hand, there is something about Sandler’s history and reputation, and probably something about his famous name and smug sophomoric face, that plainly inspires an allergic reaction among Oscar voters.

His first dramatic role was the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which is the only Anderson film since his minor debut, Hard Eight, to earn exactly zero Academy Award nominations. Next came Funny People, Judd Apatow’s underappreciated comedy-drama; a great performance in a great movie, but no nominations for anything.

More recently Sandler starred in The Meyerowitz Stories, Noah Baumbach’s last movie before this year’s much-garlanded Marriage Story. That was a minor Netflix film — no surprise that it didn’t get any award buzz — but the latest Sandler drama, this season’s Uncut Gems, was supposed to be different. The story of a hyperactive Diamond District jeweler trying to survive his own gambling addiction and penchant for self-destruction, it had a real theatrical release, not just a token Netflix drop-in; it had critical buzz; it had the necessary headlines (“Uncut Gems Is Adam Sandler’s Oscar Moment” . . . etc.); it had a pair of up-and-coming brothers as its directors; it had a nice little box-office run . . .

But then, nothing. No nomination for Sandler, no nominations for the movie — not even at the Golden Globes, where they give out ten acting nominations, for Hollywood’s sake. The Internet was right to complain that Greta Gerwig should have been nominated for directing Little Women, but where was the passion, the angst, the outrage over Sandler’s losing a Best Actor slot to Jonathan Pryce’s Two Popes impersonation of Pope Francis (an inferior knockoff of Pryce’s turn as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones)? Why didn’t all the people who reasonably hated Joker rally around a more original portrait of a high-strung, self-sabotaging New Yorker getting kicked around by a hostile world? Is the sour memory of the 137 (give or take) terrible comedies Sandler has churned out really so powerful that people can’t see genius when it strikes?

Maybe “genius” is a slight exaggeration. The truth is that Uncut Gems probably didn’t get the nominations it deserves because it’s a little hard to watch. (Especially relative to a smooth liberal-wish-fulfilling latte like The Two Popes.) Hard to watch as in challenging to follow, at least at first: The young directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, deliberately drop the audience into a shouting, everybody-talking-over-everyone-else Diamond District world, and they expect you to listen carefully, to pierce the aural cloud yourself, to figure out which conversations matter, who relates to whom, and what kinds of weird deals are going down.

And then, once you have your bearings, the story itself is hard to watch because you’re watching a protagonist, Sandler’s Howard Ratner, who’s essentially juggling lit sticks of dynamite and waiting for one of the fuses to burn down. He’s trying to balance a suburban wife (Idina Menzel) and a Manhattan mistress (Julia Fox), and that’s the easy part. The hard part is the money he owes to the mournful Arno (Eric Bogosian), who has hired a brick-faced thug (Keith Williams Richards) to get it back. And to pay it back, all Howard needs to do is auction off a remarkable black opal that he’s acquired from Ethiopia . . . except that first he loans the black opal to the Celtics star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), taking Garnett’s ring as collateral, a ring he then pawns for a dose of cash, which he uses to bet on Garnett in that night’s NBA semi-finals game . . . and that this is just the first phase of his dance with catastrophe.

In Punch-Drunk Love Sandler played an antsy man-child who was an extension of his broad comic performances; in Funny People he played a famous comedian, a darker version of himself. In Uncut Gems we get something a little more starkly distant from the Sandler oeuvre — a man of parts, an almost-good dad and son-in-law, a businessman-romantic, an ugly-yet-sexy lover, and, finally and decisively, an addict, a character who starts the movie on the run but refuses every chance he gets to stop running, because the crazy sprint is what makes him feel alive.

And the effect, for the viewer, is a constant, increasingly excruciating tension; by the end I wanted to get up and pace as I do when I’m watching the end of a close, high-stakes sporting event like the NBA games that punctuate Uncut Gems. Except that in this case the game’s not the thing, it’s just the catalyst for whatever disaster awaits Howard next, and the outcome to be feared isn’t just defeat and disappointment but ruin, and maybe even death.

So can we say that Sandler should have been nominated for this performance? Absolutely. But can I recommend Uncut Gems as Oscar counterprogramming, the un-nominated movie to watch instead of this year’s host-free show? Only if your life is otherwise quite relaxing and you need a little high tension, a little white-knuckling and self-destruction by proxy, to make you feel grateful for a more quotidian existence in which nobody is at your heels.

This article appears as “Diamond in the Rough” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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