Saying that Adam Sandler is actually a good actor is a fundamentally boring take in This Year Our Lord 2019 for reasons of sheer obviousness. As such, I’ll keep it clear and succinct: if you’re still sticking your head in the sand after nearly two decades of “Well, actually” takes at this point, I think UNCUT GEMS might truly be your last chance to rectify the error of your ways. In an artistic match that was sent like manna from Heaven, the Safdie Brothers have hit gold more valuable than an Ethiopian opal in their fifth feature. While UNCUT GEMS is arguably the best film of the year, it’s inarguably the most electric and exciting, a powerful slam-dunk after the stellar alley-oop of GOOD TIME. But for those versed in the House of Happy Madison, this is truly a tailor-made victory lap of meta-textual mastery, a cardiac arrest paddle to the critics and audiences that continue to sleep on Sandler, an Event Film that ends the damn decade on a high note. As the kids like to say, UNCUT GEMS simply fucking whips.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweler in the Diamond District whose chemically addicted to his own Art of the Deal. Unfortunately, he’s accumulated quite the laundry list of gambling debt along his way, and has recently secured an uncut opal in the hopes of auctioning it off to ameliorate his many financial missteps. However, once he’s strong-armed into loaning it to Kevin Garnett (yes, that one) by his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) after Garnett believes it can bring him good luck for a playoff game, things quickly go downhill. Pursued by his debtors as he limps his way through several half-baked bets, collaterals, and loans, calling in his ever-decreasing potential favors, Howard has to stay one step ahead to make it to the auction block.
Amazed this hasn’t popped up on its own auction block yet
It goes without saying that nobody makes a New York film quite like the Safdies. Continuing on from the vulcan death-grip of GOOD TIME, Howard’s Big Apple is mostly filmed in claustrophobic, frenetic close-up, avoiding any of the nostalgic, navel-gazing romanticism that populates many New York stories in favor of a queasily simmering energy that we both fear and crave the “gotcha” boiling-over of. A cut-throat, really rather ugly shifting mass of humanity, the Safdies’ New York and Howard’s small corner of it is both honest and visceral, carrying across a certain sense of banal brutality evoking America’s movers and shakers. My sole notable complaint about the film is the rather out-of-place cold open we get, but once things move to the Safdies’ home turf, we’re immediately thrown into the unrelenting kinetic minutiae of Howard’s life, a litany of manic pacing, phone calls and f-bombs that immediately throws us in riptide water and neglects to leave a life raft. The quickest 135 minutes you’ll ever experience, I couldn’t tell you who else could pull off making a group of people watching a basketball game one of the most nail-biting finales of the decade, never mind the year.
And yet, UNCUT GEMS is all the more commendable for its ability to have a measured sense of pace despite its regular indulgence in letting the chaos reign. In a film so preoccupied with the more physical threats affiliated with Howard’s wheeling and dealing, it’s impressive it also manages to paint a full portrait of Howard’s willfully deteriorated home life as well; casting deserving more awards for somehow pulling Idina Menzel out of their hat, the withering scorn and disdain oozing off of Howard’s wife Dinah making you squirm through the theater screen, Howard’s sole attempt at potential redemption literally laughed off in a masterfully melancholic beat that doubles as comic relief as Sandler dons his time-honored mantle of the bumbling schlub. That’s not to mention Howard’s dalliances with his mistress, Julia, played by… memorable… breakout star Julia Fox. In what is by far the film’s most deft blend of the carrot and the stick, Howard finds Julia at a club getting a little too friendly with The Weeknd, leading to a previously unexplored high of comedic crime caper potential in a movie moment that’s sure to stand the test of time.
Guess he’s more of a Drake guy
But of course, you already know who the star of the show is. In a role that it’s impossible to believe anyone else was ever considered for, Sandler has finally found the triumphant logical conclusion to the various despicable patriarchs he’s portrayed in recent memory. There’s not another actor on Earth that can manage to be as concurrently domineering and pathetic as Adam Sandler, and Howard’s dogged determination to continue to keep trying to stay afloat as he’s continually battered every which way in the galeforce wind of what’s coming to him would feel hokey in the hands of anyone else. It’s a unique character fully realized by a career of context, and to the very end we’re just as convinced Howard will fail as we are that he’ll finally hit it big, Howard’s already iconic “This is how I win” speech artfully juxtaposed with a scene of snivelling vulnerability just a few minutes before. It’s a far cry from the unrepentant man-children of THAT’S MY BOY or GROWN UPS, but is more in the ballpark than many would admit, simply having swapped out fart jokes for jewelled chest pieces while keeping the same sense of nihilistic entitlement.
That’s certainly not to suggest that the supporting cast doesn’t shine just as hard, however. Lakeith Stanfield brings a quiet menace to Demany that’s a refreshing about-face from the ironed quirkiness of his star role in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, continually keeping us guessing as to when he’s finally going to snap on Howard. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett proves himself as one of the most striking participants of the athlete-to-actor pipeline, managing to carry the sense of delivering his genuine self while having moment of genuine dramatic connection with Sandler: again, the “This is how I win” scene is one of 2019’s finest outings. Even managing to make an unforgettable cameo out of hyper-local New York weirdo Wayne Diamond, a facet in the actual Garment District, the Safdies are able to operate in an iconic pocket that effortlessly blurs the lines between fabricated authorship and the recontextualized drama of reality, what Eastwood attempted with THE 15:17 TO PARIS writ much larger and better.
Honestly, just give us a Wayne Diamond biopic
All of this is to say that for as much as some of their outings can fit too easily into a certain tonal mold, UNCUT GEMS feels like something that wouldn’t have been possible without A24’s presence in the independent marketplace, a high-fidelity, slick outing that’s still entirely beholden to personal vision and investment. Will Adam Sandler shock the world and get an Oscar? The odds are stacked against him, but the little gold man doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the stars aligned to give us a film only the Safides could make with a performance only Sandler could have knocked out of the park. This is how we won at the end of 2019.