For all the negativity that surrounds Adam Sandler, the comedian continues to prove his value in the industry. Most of the noise revolves around his buddy films at Happy Madison, which seemingly release every quarter or two. However, Sandler has now been a staple of American entertainment for more than a quarter-century. Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison became classics of the 1990s, and many of his romcoms, specifically the Drew Barrymore films, have earned their place in pop culture. Sandler remains one of the generational stars and godfathers of comedy, regardless of how you feel about the man-boy antics. Its wonder that the stars have aligned for Sandler and his new film Uncut Gems, which instantly becomes one of the most unnerving experiences of the year.
Uncut Gems follows Howard (Sandler), a popular jeweler in New York’s diamond district. While he has a wife (Idina Menzel) and kids, Howard’s consistently looking for the next big score. A gambling addict and serial cheater, he needs adrenaline to live. When he loses money to a local boss Arlo (Eric Bogosian), his anxiety and bad behavior spin out of control. As he attempts to unload a valuable Opal from Africa, NBA star Kevin Garnett provides Howard a way out of his troubles…if he can get control of his life.
Every once in a while, a director with a vision takes Sandler down a different path. The results speak for themselves, with Sandler often earning best-in-show acclaim when he goes this route. The Safdie Brothers now join this list, using the anger and inherent comedy within Sandler to their advantage. There’s something about his smile and wolfish glances at women that will unnerve you. Creating the character of Howard feels like Sandler returning to his roots, both embracing the scummy underbelly of his career and his Jewish heritage. The things that make Sandler so damn likable are on display, and you empathize with a man who would be the textbook definition of unlikable. Sandler’s revving on all engines, and will certainly become one of the most talked-about performances of his career.
Josh and Bennie Safdie prove to masterful in their use of tension. For a film that breaks the two-hour mark, it moves with astonishing speed at times. They demonstrate a masterful handle on tension, allowing the film to hit several peaks and valleys along the way. Their snapshot of the diamond district impresses, allowing us to feel the dichotomy between the grimy world Howard inhabits and the big money that works as its lifeblood. You would rarely expect millionaires and the super-rich to find themselves in the mud, but the Safdies create the ultimate playground for these men. To complement to film’s visuals, a synth-based score echoes throughout the film. Composer Daniel Lopatin knocks it out of the park with the unnerving energy in each musical accompaniment.
Unsurprising to most basketball fans, but likely shocking to most moviegoers, Garnett absolutely owns the screen. The future Hall-of-Famer gets a juicy role, and in his limited time, he impresses. He functions as a stand-in for the audience, and his reactions are priceless. KG shows off, running laps around many lifelong performers. Menzel plays wildly out-of-type with some great moments too. Her anger and a general disdain for Howie inform the longevity of his bad decision making. Without Menzel, you do not realize the life he’s giving up in his quest to hit it big.
Uncut Gems will not be for everyone, and a big reason for that will be its marketing. Far from being the pseudo-heist film that was promised, the tension driven thriller will fray some nerves. With Sandler’s deeply unlikable Howard leading the way, many will tune out. Yet the hypnotic story captivated me, and with dozens of my favorite things in a single movie, I came out of it grinning from ear to ear.