An actor accused of being type-cast is understood to mean that he or she lacks range. This concept is widely believed, but is very untrue. Firstly, it can be financially advantageous to lean into an acting brand since it guarantees continued work. Secondly, no actor uses their same individual tricks which can be stretched in many exciting ways. Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore (1996) is the same man with the same acting moves as the Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love (2002). The fun part is seeing the same skills used in different tones. Sandler has recently been misbranded as an untalented comedy actor who occasionally plays against type in meaty roles. In truth, he’s an incredible talent whose skills go unnoticed. With films like Uncut Gems (2020), the world stops and takes notice.
Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a Jeweller in the New York Diamond District. Working in Ratner’s store is Julia (Julia Fox), his employee and girlfriend. When he’s not trying to hold off divorce from his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), Ratner spends his days trying to smooth talk high value customers, sports stars and musicians to purchase his stock. The thrill he feels for celebrity customers is nothing compared to his love of gambling, which leads to Ratner getting in serious debt with dangerous people. To pay his debts, he has acquired a priceless opal which he intends to auction. Despite his better judgement Ratner loans the opal to Basketball star Kevin Garnett, thrusting Ratner into a tense struggle to get it back before his debts destroy everything.
The biggest hurdle with gambling films is making the audience believe the central conflict. Generally, moviegoers are very critical and will pick out logic flaws. A gambling addiction is self-defeating, which can be an issue in narrative film. The protagonist has a debt to pay, he/she successfully figure a way to get out debt, yet he/she still gets deeper in it by knowingly putting success at risk. It’s naturally illogical, so viewers find it difficult to sympathise. Uncut Gems has that same test and passes easily. Co-Directors Ben and Josh Safdie, allow the audience to look deeply into Ratner’s suffering. We see the estrangement from his wife and we feel the isolation from his family. We understand what winning means to him and why he’d risk everything to win big. By seeing Ratner’s entire depth of character, the viewer is enthralled.
Consequently, the Safdie brothers can masterfully hold the audiences attention. Filling the runtime with countless action setpieces can usually keep the thrills high, but Josh and Ben are more creative than that. The brothers turn the most innocuous scenarios into sequences filled with dramatic tension. Simply opening an automatic door becomes a nail-biting hell-scape and a dry auction becomes an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride. There’s plenty sequences of dangerous debt collectors doing bad things, but the tension persists outside of that. Things feel rightfully chaotic and claustrophobic at all times.
Claustrophobia is the best way to describe the directorial intent of the film. The frame is filled with people and rich production design, ensuring the various locations are cluttered just like how real life is. Nothing is clean, nothing is organised and everything is uncomfortably grimy. The Safdie brothers have uncovered the seedy underbelly of the Diamond District, creating a world which is both fresh and confronting. This depiction of New York City is appropriately devoid of glitz and glamour. Their version of NYC is practically bursting at the seams. The amount of characters and extras filling every moment pushes those seams to their physical limit. The characters shout and yell over each other, creating an amazing symphony of anger and mayhem at every moment. It may overwhelm some viewers, but feeling overwhelmed by the world around you is a defined narrative goal.
Speaking of thematics, there are many layers of complexity to this story which are elegantly fleshed out. Naturally, the arc deal with the physical and emotional affects of gambling. Ratner goes through horrible things as a result of his struggle. More importantly, he goes into complete elation when things go right. Even if the route to get there was ill-advised, the deeply emotional satisfaction from success permeates the entire narrative. The Safdie’s hone in on the euphoric power of that satisfaction, as their ethereal craftsmanship creates an existential tone. It’s powerful, even though an obvious plot devise is used to bring out this idea. Some viewers may find the self-reflective nature of the story to be indulgent, but it’s artfully purposeful.
The secret weapon to the film’s success is Adam Sandler’s hypnotic performance. Sandler has always been a talented man even if majority of the world doesn’t recognise it. Granted, this is a dramatic turn for Sandler, but it’s not a total transformation. He is recognisably Sandler with all his eccentricities, but they are put to fantastic use here. His portrait of Ratner is enjoyably boyish just like Sandler’s standard characters, yet underneath that boyishness is a man burdened with ambition and responsibility. His ambitious pursuits are endearing even though we can foresee everything going wrong. He is responsible for his own wellbeing as well as those closest to him (even though they hate him). It’s a powerful, real and fascinating performance. We watch in awe as he pushes and pulls between self-loathing and self-love.
If Uncut Gems proves anything, it proves (once again) that Sandler can perform with them best of them. He’s not a has-been trying his best to escape trashy movies. He’s an acting auteur who uses his skills in whichever project he chooses. When he chooses layered work, magic happens. Sandler is complemented by the steady hand of the Safdie brothers. It may be too much or too bizarre for some, but Uncut Gems is a truly unique experience.
Best way to watch it: With a pillow to cover your face when things get tense.