I’ll admit that the positive press for Uncut Gems caught me a bit by surprise. Coming from two directors I had never heard of, from a writer that I had never heard of, and featuring an actor that has become a running joke in his profession, none of it really seemed to bode well. And I mean it on that last point: nobody can deny Adam Sandler’s financial success, but the man appeared to have checked out of acting around the time he was sleepwalking through the truly awful Pixels, choosing to spend several years wasting his once-genuine talent in low-brow Netflix original comedies.
But Sandler has had it before. The Wedding Singer, Click, Funny People, these are examples of Sandler at his best, and plenty of the early Happy Madison productions are hysterical, perfectly encapsulating the time and place that they came from. And there seemed to be every indication that Uncut Gems would be more in line with that side of Sandler and less with the man behind what Red Letter Media so memorably dubbed “the Great Adam Sandler Comedy Swindle” (with Sandler and friends pocketing huge paychecks in his films, and making up for it with cheap, rushed productions paid for in large part by copious amounts of product placement). With the lead trading in the Netflix comedies for Netflix drama, I was ready to give Uncut Gems a shot. Was it worth it, or is Sandler as spent a force as he has appeared for the last few years?
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a New York City jeweler, whose gambling addition has led him to owe a large amount of money to some scary people. Hoping that the sale of an Ethiopian Opal will net him a million dollars, the foul-mouthed and slightly unhinged Howard becomes embroiled in a complicated web of back-alley deals, duplicity and scheming, involving mistress Julia (Julia Fox), loan-shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) and NBA basketball legend Kevin Garnett (himself).
Uncut Gems is certainly an interesting movie. It has plenty of positives, that range from a few ingenious cinematography choices to some genuinely entrancing script moments. But there is one thing that it simply cannot get beyond, and that is the undeniable sense that you are watching a film that consists largely of Adam Sandler’s obnoxious central character shouting and swearing at everybody around him. And, let me tell you, that is a film that I do not want to suffer through a second time.
I suppose this comes down to your own tolerance for such things. I can well imagine that plenty of viewers will find something endearing about Howard, someone who, to quote once again that great TV show Justified, is “born to lose”. The Safdie brothers do their best to try and make Howard an actual protagonist, a man who, at the end of the day, just wants to make some money selling jewelry, and not illegally either (it’s just everything else around the same that’s dodgy as all hell, and not just the sense you are watching a Jewish stereotype). He loves his kids, he adores his girlfriend and you can buy that he thinks he’s just one good deal away from getting all of this sorted out.
But I really found it impossible to get behind Howard. He’s greedy. He’s misogynistic. He’s prone to constant verbal outbursts. He’s a user of people. He’s too easily conquered by his own vices. Everyone in his life suffers from his own lack of foresight and impulse control. I never wanted to see hum succeed, not even in a single scene. In another film, Howard is the villain of the story, and Kevin Garnett and Lakeith Stanfield are the heroes. It might well be the point that Howard is unlikelabe, that the directors do not consider him the protagonist. But you can’t base a 140 minute long movie – an absolutely excruciating amount of time to spend with Adam Sandler shouting curse words at the camera – on such a character without giving us more reasons than this to want to follow him around.
Sandler does better work here than he has in years, but that wouldn’t exactly have been hard. Much like Joaquin Phoenix as the title character in Joker, what I see here is people lining up to give praise to a one-note performance, where said note has been hammered so hard it manages to drown out everything around it. Any actor can shout and curse and repeat for hours: that doesn’t make it a good performance. The quiet moments are few and far between, and Sandler shows more humanity in a single minute of desperate weeping in his office, than he does in hours of rants and slurs.
And that is a shame because, as stated, there is plenty to this film that I actually liked. Some of the supporting cast are quite good. Julia Fox makes the most of a role that could otherwise have been little more than eye-candy (replete with a superfluous sex scene based almost entirely around Howard’s creepiness, where she has to don skimpy lingerie), injecting scenes with Sandler with some much-needed feeling. Stanfield deserves a bigger part, but I did quite like his assistant, the man tasked with finding Howard’s big-name clients, like Kevin Garnett (who does OK for a total amateur). Others are wasted: Bogosian is too good for this one-note villain, and Idina Menzel – yes, that Idina Menzel – strolls through the production as Howard’s estranged wife waiting for the end of Passover to divorce him, coming to life only for one meaty scene at the mid-point.
There are Tarantino-esque moments to Uncut Gems that will carry you through certain scenes, when the Safdie brothers and co-writer Ronald Bronstein script exhibits an understanding of fast-paced dialogue and character interaction that will leave you wondering where the rest of a decent film went. When he isn’t shouting – exceedingly rare – Sandler’s Howard delivers some great back-and-forth with a succession of interesting characters, and Uncut Gems is strangely at its best when the central issue of the plot is left at the wayside, and we get to watch Howard attempt to craft individual deals, whether they are with other jewelers, pawn shop owners, loan shark heavies, or NBA all-stars. There is a nice flow to conversations, that make certain scenes feel lived-in and unique. There is a tension to the film as you follow Howard’s fall into greater depths of gambling addiction, that culminates in a stellar effort to make drama out of a sporting result that much of the audience will already know about. But such moments are nearly always undone by another round of unnecessary volume and expletives.
Uncut Gems has drawn some positive attention for the way that it looks, and for some rather bold visual choice that the Safdie brothers make along the way. Such praise primarily refers to some trippy, almost cosmic sequences where the camera jumps into the Ethiopian Opal that becomes the film’s Macguffin, taking us an a tour of somewhere that another film calls the quantum realm. Showing the precious rock at that scale, and leading in and out of such sequences with scenes of a comparatively humdrum nature – an early one is Howard’s colonoscopy – would appear to be an effort try and place the events of Uncut Gems in a larger universal context. It’s a bit of a reach though, even with a score that occasionally sounds more than a bit like Blade Runner helping things along.
Other than the dives into uncut gems (hey, I geddit), the Safdie brothers’ camera likes to be up close and personal, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. At times, the way that the lens is zeroed in on people faces makes for an actors masterclass, that even Sandler gets in on in the aforementioned scenes where the stresses of his life cause him to finally break down and cry. At others it is not so good: a scene inside a car where Howard is being man-handled by some goons seems claustrophobic to the point of being off-putting. Efforts to inject some verve in proceedings are hit and mess: one mis-point sequence, where Howard tries to evade some of his loan shark’s security by running around backstage at a theatre, is remarkably flat for what it was trying to portray. Others, like a sequence where Howard gets into a public shouting match with Julia Fox, are a bit better, the grainy footage and handheld camera travelling through the crowded New York City streets, and effectively capturing, just for a moment, the kind of energy the place is famous for.
Uncut Gems is a disappointment for me, another in an increasingly long line of films that I feel is being fawned over despite a large amount of mediocrity. The lead’s performance is really only OK, one where any sense of nuance or skill is lost in the recurring shouty shouty nature of it. For every scene where the script shines, there is a scene where it lands with a thud. For every member of the supporting cast impressing, there is a member of the supporting cast who is shamefully wasted in a role that is not worth their time. For every neat visual choice and sequence, there is one where Uncut Gems seems rushed and not thought our properly. And, at the risk of being guilty of the same thing I am criticising, the endless, repeating, unpalatable trope of Adam Sandler screaming and swearing his way through scenes, characters and relationships.
There was a very good idea in Uncut Gems, but it needed more subtlety, more care in its script and in the direction of it cast. As it is, it can only be considered another dud in the career of Sandler, a unique one to be sure, but still very much a dud. If you want to see a film with a somewhat similar premise and feel, but executed so much better than this, check out Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird, and see how it makes a compelling protagonist out of a slightly shifty wheeler-dealer doing his best to make his way in new York City (and in just 91 minutes). As for Uncut Gems, it is not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).