It’s not often you get to write the words “Adam Sandler” and “Shakespearean” in the same sentence. But that is the perfect adjective to describe his character in the Safdie brothers’ marvelous new film “Uncut Gems” (out Friday on Netflix).
For over 25 years, the American comedian has churned out the kind of slapdash slapstick that only the most undemanding of audiences – and French film critics seeking the second coming of Jerry Lewis – could love.
Sure, there were occasional signs that the guy could act – most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009) and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017). Yet there was nothing to remotely suggest his acting masterclass here, especially when you consider his recent run of made-for-Netflix dreck: “The Ridiculous 6,” “The Do-Over,” “The Week Of” – alleged comedies that collectively contained fewer laughs than a Sylvia Plath poem and were as welcome in your home as a sneezing visitor from Wuhan.
The only way you could possibly get me to watch one of his Netflix comedies is if the alternative were death or, even worse, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “The Goop Lab.” It’s as if he was saying (in that patented whiney Brooklyn voice): “My latest comedy was literally written by monkeys with iPads, yet I am still cashing checks for millions of dollars. Who’s laughing now, suckers?”
A cynic might suggest that Netflix should have taken a leaf out of the (very musty) “Ninotchka” playbook when that film’s posters informed the public that “Garbo laughs” to promote Greta Garbo’s transition to comedy in 1939. But “Uncut Gems” doesn’t need the words “Sandler acts” on its promotional materials – because there are already two words on the poster that suggest he will deliver a bravura performance: Safdie brothers.
Sorry for going off-piste here, but what is it about filmmaking that increasingly attracts siblings? I can understand how brothers and sisters end up in music groups together, from the Everly Brothers to Tegan and Sara (Doobie Brothers, you lied!). But now we have, to name but five, the Safdies, the Russos, the Duffers, the Duplasses and, of course, the Wachowskis all pooling their talents. Imagine going to your doctor and finding two siblings waiting to diagnosis you – one concentrating on the upper body, the other the rest. Never going to happen.
Anyway, as I was saying … in the space of just a decade, Josh and Benny Safdie have managed to establish themselves as the best Jewish filmmaking siblings this side of Minneapolis. But where the Coen brothers continue to make idiosyncratic, quirky movies across all genres, these young New Yorkers’ films owe a huge debt to the oeuvres of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann.
Theirs is a world of New York lowlifes, chancers, shlimazels and meshuggeners – where self-destructive characters compete to be heard above synthesizer scores that wouldn’t be out of place on an ’80s thriller like “Manhunter” or side two of a Tangerine Dream album.
It’s a heady mix, one that leaves you completely hooked as you are drawn into manic stories that are rarely far from the farcical – and where the protagonists, surrounded as they are by foes, nevertheless still contrive to be their own worst enemies.
Two tense hours
If 2017’s “Good Time” established the Safdies as major talents – and that’s a must-see movie for Robert Pattinson’s brilliant turn as a scheming young criminal who is both hopelessly devoted to his brother and, well, a bit hopeless – “Uncut Gems” puts them on a whole new level. The brothers reportedly honed, shaped and polished this particular gem of a script for the best part of a decade – and it shows.
This is filmmaking of the highest order, guaranteeing you the two tensest hours of your week (well, unless you’re a bomb disposal expert). There were moments when the tension was so unbearable, I actually wanted to skip to the end to see how it all pans out. But at the risk of sounding like Yoda, stick with it you must, young Jedi. That synthesizer score manages to generate tension in the most unlikely of scenes – even when Sandler’s character is taking out the recycling bins. Quite the feat.
Sandler is in almost every scene as Howard Ratner (is it just me who was amazed to discover that, after nigh-on 50 films, this was the first time he had played a schlub called Howard?). He’s a jewelry salesman and impulsive gambler operating out of New York’s Diamond District – a middle-aged dude so deep in debt that even Donald Trump might question his business acumen. And he has heavies breathing heavily down his neck at every turn.
Salvation has seemingly arrived in the form of a black opal he has spent 17 months pursuing from the “Ethiopian Jewish tribe” at a mine in Africa. The only problem is that he reluctantly agrees to let Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett – played, rather convincingly, by Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett – take it home for the night, even though he needs to get it valued at a swanky auctioneer the following day. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as this is a Safdie brothers film, what won’t?
“Uncut Gems” plays like Scorsese’s “After Hours” on acid, with Howard getting sucked into a spiralling vortex of his own impulsive making. This is a man who reeks of desperation – so much so that it’s a wonder he doesn’t join the kids who are hunting for the afikomen at the family Passover seder, in a bid to claim the reward for himself.
As well as the gripping performance by Sandler (call it muscle memory, but I initially wrote “griping” there), Judd Hirsch also contributes a lovely cameo as Howard’s aging father-in-law, while newcomer Julia Fox makes the most of her scenes as Howard’s colleague and mistress. Ironically, although Idina Menzel (yes, that Idina Menzel of “Let It Go” fame) doesn’t get much screen-time as Howard’s long-suffering wife, she does get to utter the line that all of us have probably wanted to say to Sandler at some point in our lives: “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met.”
Although the Safdies’ gut-wrenching 2014 film “Heaven Knows What” featured a female protagonist, it’s probably fair to say that, like Scorsese before them – and putting it bluntly – their forte is male fuckups. And in Sandler’s Howard Ratner, they have given us their most indelible creation to date.
They also manage to weave their love of basketball into the drama (the film is set in the spring of 2012, drawing on an actual series of matches featuring Garnett’s Celtics team), which seems to embody their entire approach: Everything they do comes from a passion for their characters, their stories and their settings – a welcome throwback to the ’70s, when other Jewish New Yorkers like Alan J. Pakula, Jerry Schatzberg and Peter Bogdanovich were making character-driven dramas like “Klute,” “The Panic in Needle Park” and “The Last Picture Show.”
The Safdies’ latest film even achieves the seemingly impossible: Triggering genuine emotion over the fate of a character played by Adam Sandler. If ever a performance deserved Oscar recognition, it’s this one. And after such a disappointing oversight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, even I find myself having some sympathy for Little Nicky.