Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jewellery shop owner and gambling addict in a race against time to pay off his debts. His latest get-rich-quick scheme involves a rare black opal imported from Africa, expected to bring him over a million dollars at auction. However, the deal is put in jeopardy after Howard’s employee Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) unexpectedly brings in NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to peruse the shop’s wares. Garnett takes a shine to the gem (pun intended) and is eventually allowed to borrow it for a game as his lucky charm. As you might expect, some classic miscommunication forces Howard to track the gem down across various locations over the course of a weekend.
Just in case the above synopsis still has you expecting a black comedy, let me once again emphatically state that UNCUT GEMS is a straight-up crime thriller. While Sandler has played assholes on paths to redemption, or even literal winking devils, Howard is lightyears away from his previous characters and is easily the least sympathetic role he’s ever undertaken. He’s an angry, impulsive man whose actions feel like an animal caught in a trap desperately thrashing towards freedom, regardless of the impact his actions might have on other people. For instance, despite his most menacing creditor literally being his brother-in-law, Howard rarely seems to consider the proximity of this danger to his wife and children.
Howard’s omnipresent rage is perhaps the only recognisable Sandler trait that’s used here, though it’s heightened to a captivating extreme. Forget Happy Gilmore freaking out over his putt falling short, Howard screams his lungs out in almost every scene. Sandler’s limitless energy left me on the edge of my seat waiting to see what he would say or do next, whether a bad decision would prove to be Howard’s undoing, or catalyse an even worse one. Tight editing is a hallmark of the Safdie brothers’ work, yet UNCUT GEMS’ breathtaking pace is equally Sandler’s doing. On the sole occasion where the film slows down and Howard begins to wallow in despair, it instinctively feels uncomfortable. Sandler knows this and otherwise rushes through each set piece, simultaneously in pursuit of his big score and fleeing his impending doom. To put it simply, Sandler proves himself not just as a dramatic actor, but as a bona fide powerhouse.
Reviewers have taken jabs at the ‘Adam Sandler brand’ for as long as I’ve been alive, so I’d like to avoid doing so at length here. I don’t automatically dislike everything the man has done; in fact, I’ll even defend some of the less popular entries in his filmography like Funny People (yes, it’s too long, but the actors aren’t to blame for that). At the same time, I also haven’t watched any of his Netflix co-productions because I can safely assume the humour isn’t my cup of tea.
This is where the Safdies come in. Although the duo wrote UNCUT GEMS with Sandler in mind, his performance complements their distinct vision instead of distracting from it. Much of what made their 2017 film Good Time so compelling is also present in this film, such as its hazy, dreamlike cinematography and composer Daniel Lopatin’s dazzling synths. The former will take some getting used to for those unfamiliar with the brothers’ work and may unfortunately dissuade some viewers, but it’s worth sticking with it to witness the bizarre flourishes they add at every turn. If you didn’t already think Furbys are creepy, Howard sells blinged up ones as necklaces. In addition to Garnett, singer The Weeknd briefly appears as himself. The film cuts from a closeup of the opal to Howard’s colonoscopy footage. On paper it almost sounds like it shouldn’t work.
Ultimately, there are plenty of reasons to love UNCUT GEMS. I haven’t even mentioned how consistently excellent the supporting cast are, from Garnett elevating what could’ve been a glorified cameo, to Julia Fox’s surprisingly layered turn as Howard’s employee/mistress (in her feature film debut, no less). Nevertheless, I imagine most people’s reactions to this film will focus on the same aspect as mine: one of the biggest names in American comedy blowing up your expectations of him and pulling it off flawlessly. The fact that the Oscars didn’t even nominate this performance in the Best Actor category is absurd. This is career best work from Adam Sandler and the Safdies alike; I look forward to whatever they do next.