2019 has certainly been an interesting year for acting comebacks. It was a year that saw Jennifer Lopez steal the show in Hustlers, Shia LaBeouf transform himself in Honey Boy, and Keanu Reeves officially evolve into the coolest person on the planet. The biggest surprise of all can be found in Uncut Gems where Adam Sandler gives a Best Actor caliber performance. We all know that Sandler can be funny, although he rarely puts any effort into his comedies, especially ones from this past decade. We also know that Sandler can be a strong dramatic actor, but he’s only occasionally challenged himself since showcasing his potential in Punch-Drunk Love. Uncut Gems is a testament to what a phenomenal talent Sandler can be with the right people behind the camera. The same can be said about fellow SNL vet Eddie Murphy, who also breathed new life into his career this year with Dolemite Is My Name.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie are no strangers to redeeming actors, bringing out an unseen side of Robert Pattinson in the fiercely underrated Good Time. The Safdies have made an equally nerve-wracking thriller with Uncut Gems. Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jewelry store owner who seemingly has everything: a fancy house, loving children, and an attractive wife played by Idina Menzel. Howard is simply never satisfied with what he has, however. His marriage has been essentially over ever since he started shacking up with a younger mistress, played by Julia Fox. He’s also up to his neck in gambling debts with violent mobsters waiting around every corner to collect their money.
Howard believes he can solve all of his problems when he comes into possession of a rare gem that’s to be auctioned off. The gem captures the eye of Celtics player Kevin Garnett, portrayed here by himself, who asks if he can barrow it for good luck. From here, Howard digs himself deeper into trouble by placing more bets and making more promises he can’t necessarily keep. Like most compulsive gamblers, Howard is always on the lookout for the next big score, but no score will ever big enough to satisfy his addiction. Even when an easy solution is gift-wrapped to him, Howard would rather roll the dice again rather than walk away with his winnings.
Sandler plays Howard with the same charisma of a younger Al Pacino. (Insert Jack and Jill joke here). Like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Howard continually backs himself into a corner that he can’t possibly get out of. Yet, Sandler is so confident and unrelenting in the role that we find ourselves betting on Howard’s success. All at once, he’s both the smartest man in the room and the dumbest. Howard will leave you wanting to punch him one minute and wanting to cheer with him the next. Since this cycle never ends, though, there’s no denying that Howard has a serious disorder that may be beyond help.
Although Uncut Gems sets itself in 2012, one could see a film such as this coming out in the 70s. Cinematographer Darius Khondji supplies the film with the kind of grit you’d find in The French Connection or Taxi Driver. Actually, Martin Scorsese executive produced the film and you can see how he likely inspired the Safdies in every frame of their picture. Their movie is like a small room that’s slowly filling up with water. By the final act, the room has been flooded to the ceiling, leaving everybody inside gasping for air as they’re submerged under.