I’ll admit. I wasn’t sure Sandler had it in him. The days of Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy seemed so ancient that it was hard to remember what was so special about this guy. Now we have Uncut Gems. As if there was ever any doubt.
2017’s Good Time was a breakthrough hit for sibling directors The Safdie Brothers, so a bigger budget follow-up had to be on the cards. In 2019 it arrived but no one could have guessed Adam Sandler would be leading the cast. On announcement I was sceptical. I mean objectively speaking the vast majority of Sandler’s filmography, especially in recent years, has been pretty terrible. But then the reviews came in, and the audiences began to buzz, and everything I heard or read about this film was praising. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when a film receives that level of recognition across the board… there’s usually a good reason for it.
Sandler inhabits Howard Ratner, a NYC based jewellery shop owner and compulsive gambler. His addiction has left him tens of thousands in debt to various individuals, criminal and otherwise. We are shown early on that these people are not the forgiving kind. Our introduction to Howard presents him bargaining with a pair of menacing looking debt collectors, there on behalf the powerful sounding ‘Arno’, but Sandler’s fast-talking character somehow persuades them out of the building, assuring them the money is on its way. This formula repeats throughout in various mutations as Howard is constantly watching the clock trying to maintain all these spinning plates, each of which, always on the brink of toppling. In essence, this idea is the heart of the story. A man desperately racing against time to get ahead of his debts but inevitably undermining himself at every turn. As viewers we restlessly watch this car-crash of a character stumble through the film, willing him to ultimately make the right call. It’s a work out.
Howard’s life isn’t solely about his shop and his debts however. We see a tender side to him as well, usually portrayed through scenes with his family or his girlfriend and co-worker Julia (Julia Fox) where his passionate nature and prolific ability to make bad decisions are further demonstrated. Sandler handles these moments beautifully. He is also a practising Jew and we get an insight into the New York Jewish microcosm as he and his wider family conduct the ceremony of Passover. The Safdie Brothers spoke about infusing the story with those traditional Jewish elements that they themselves have practiced to give detail and culture to the New York Diamond District in which this story unfolds.
Sandler wasn’t the only big name in the cast. None other than NBA superstar Kevin Garnett plays a supporting role as himself. Well… a version of himself. Garnett trades a priceless ring to borrow the titular gems for ‘just one night’ but unsurprisingly things go awry and what follows is a chain of events that pulls you along at a brutal pace. Garnett’s performance is serviceable but I have to say, at times, it’s not a parr with the quality of the writing. Some line deliveries and expressiveness fall flat and lack the punch and drive that the script deals out in such glorious abundance. That said, it’s one of only a few minor drawbacks.
It’s clear The Safdie Brothers have stepped up their game with this. The cinematography, script and story are on a level with anything we see in modern day, mainstream cinema and thankfully this has been reflected in the form of several independent film awards including Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for Sandler for which he gave a unmissable speech, check it out. The score and soundtrack further enhance the experience, relentlessly propelling you from one scene to the next just as it did in Good Time.
Ruling – A masterclass of tension, Uncut Gems is an unyielding, roller-coaster of a film that throws into stark focus the reality of addiction and self-destruction with a creative signature from two exciting young talents.