‘Adam Sandler’ is a name that has become synonymous with ‘bottom of the barrel’ in terms of comedy films. Even as somebody with a nostalgic love for the utter absurdity of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, I’ve winced and cringed at the overwhelming majority of his output over the past couple of decades, increasingly less able to tolerate the idiotic voices and facial expressions, coupled with the broad, lame humour that infests them. Back in 2002, when Paul Thomas Anderson announced that he was working on a comedy-drama with Sandler in the lead role, everyone laughed their arses off at his brilliant joke, before holding their heads in terror at the realisation that he was sincere. But, as showcased in Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson had taken the step of tapping into something that many had long suspected: When given a dramatic role, Adam Sandler is the absolute shit.
Life is an extraordinarily difficult thing for Howard Ratner, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. As the owner of a jewellery store in the New York Diamond District, his days consist of perpetual hassling and hustling, sweet-talking his prospective clients into paying substantially over the odds for goods that are at best dishonestly advertised, at worst outright counterfeits. It becomes increasingly easier to see why Howard maintains optimism and high energy whilst under constant stress when you realise that he’s the textbook example of what is often termed the ‘addictive personality’. A compulsive gambler, he is in six figures of debt to a local crew of loan sharks who are losing patience every day, and habitually betrays his long-suffering, contemptuous wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) with younger employee Julia (Julia Fox), the latter woman being unremittingly smitten with Howard and occupying an apartment he bought to facilitate their trysts. He is utterly selfish and obnoxious in his constant pursuit of the ultimate score (and the euphoria that comes with both journey and destination), thoughtlessly indulging in every whim and potentially putting his family in harm’s way because of his tendency to dick around the wrong kind of people. In spite of this (and no doubt thanks to Sandler’s oddly addictive charisma), you care about the guy.
In the midst of all this ducking and diving, Howard has engineered his most ambitious scheme yet: Paying for the highly illegal importation of a rare black opal embedded in rock from Ethiopia, he intends to auction it off and net himself a cool $1,000,000. No more debt, stress levels down, maybe even early retirement. But, Howard being Howard, things are never this cut-and-dry. Eager to impress new client Kevin Garnett (the NBA icon actually plays a fictionalised version of himself), he indulges the basketball star’s superstitions that the opal could bring him good professional fortune, and temporarily loans it to him. This decision sets off a chain reaction of events that grab hold of you and violently shake you around for 2 hrs 15 minutes, right up until the balls-out intensity of the final frame.
I was immediately enamoured with the film’s directors, brothers Josh & Benny Safdie, upon watching their breakout hit Good Time back in 2017. With another seemingly strange choice for lead actor, Robert Pattinson, they immediately created a new subgenre I’ve taken to calling ‘high-octane arthouse’. That film, with its pressure-cooker narrative about the machinations of NYC scumbag Constantine Nikas trying to spring his younger brother Nick from jail, is structured like a crime thriller but is truly a grittily intimate character study about the pathologies that drive Connie in his daily life, charting his lying, stealing, cheating and manipulation and the manner in which he rationalises that nothing is too far when it comes to familial obligation. The intensity of every single moment is not entertaining or thrilling but stressful, taking the term ‘experiential cinema’ to the heights of making the audience feel like they’re in a room with no windows, and a maniac with a gun is on the other side of a locked door. The Safdies have not only revisited but increased their idiosyncratic brand of special madness in Uncut Gems, which has been aptly described by Empire as ”essentially the cocaine-chopper-and-cooking freak-out scene from Goodfellas stretched out to two hours”.
They have further proven their genius in their decision to collaborate again with Daniel Lopatin a.k.a Oneohtrix Point Never, who composed the OST for Good Time. An electronica/ambient artist whose immersive soundscapes rank among the likes of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, he has arguably produced the finest original soundtrack in years here, his synths framing an extremely emotive nighttime dreamland that evokes the music of Blade Runner and Thief. It superficially seems like it might be better suited to a sci-fi movie, but the brilliance of the direction makes it fit the film in the most moving way possible.
It has created something of a Marmite sensation since its limited theatrical release (On Christmas Day, no less), with moviegoers either discarding it as one of the worst pieces of shit they have ever seen, or heralding it as evidence that truly great movies are an infinite process, and far from a phenomenon of the past. I confidently throw my hat into the ring of the latter camp, due in no small part to Sandler’s fantastic performance (as I write this, I’m actually rather pissed off that the Academy have snubbed the notion of Oscar-nominating him). The dialogue is extremely abrasive, capturing the neverending stress of New York City with characters who constantly shout at, interrupt and talk over one another, and if you’ve little patience for foul language, stay the hell away, as the picture is littered with it (I personally found it both highly amusing and authentic). Sandler is front-and-centre in that aggressiveness, infusing Howard with loud, hard-bitten confidence and energy that is self-evidently prerequisite for the work he does and the life he leads. He’s not a ‘tough guy’ per se, but he absolutely has a huge set of balls on him. O.P.N.’s score is constant throughout, which I found to be a beautiful and addicting touch, but if you suffer from misophonia or any other variety of sound sensitivity, you’re probably not going to have a pleasant experience.
A ridiculously intense, highly emotional film with impeccable writing, it conveys a mood that perfectly mirrors the ominous, offbeat cynicism found in ’70s indie classics such as Straight Time and Fingers. Featuring excellent, believable performances from everyone involved, it is unequivocally the greatest moment of Adam Sandler’s career, he should give the comedy a rest and opt for straighter roles from here on out. I can’t recall the last time such a complex character imbued me with such agitation and misted my eyes. I have an enormous amount of respect for the Safdie brothers as cinephiles and artists, and I have a hunch that they are slowly cementing their places as the greatest directorial team of the century.
Uncut Gems is released on Netflix January 31.