In a recent interview with Howard Stern, Adam Sandler joked that if he didn’t win an Oscar for his role in festival-feted indie Uncut Gems, he would make a film “so bad, on purpose” as revenge. Anyone who has sat through an Adam Sandler comedy could argue that this has been the directive for most of his career but after seeing, or rather enduring, his abrasive, career-best turn in the Safdie brothers thriller, one wonders why he doesn’t make more films that are so good on purpose.
His string of punishingly puerile Netflix films (a company he partnered with because “it rhymes with wet chicks”) have at least afforded him the financial freedom to return to smaller fare from interesting directors. Back in 2002, at the height of his bankability, he made the surprise decision to star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful, whimsical romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, a game-changing turn that revealed an actor of far more depth than many had assumed. He’s dabbled again since, with Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) and James L Brooks (Spanglish), but only in spurts, hinting at but not fully committing to the transformative dramatic performance we knew, or at least hoped, he had in him.
It took thirtysomething New York film-makers the Safdie brothers to lure him back to the dark side with the dream role of Howard Ratner, a charismatic jeweller forever pushing the limits of those around him, the kind of guy who’s always one failed bet or unfulfilled promise away from getting his face smashed in. He’s as compelling as he is annoying and the same can be said for the film around him, a ferocious assault on the senses, and the nerves, as we follow Howard into a precarious trap of his own making. As they did in their last film, the grimy Robert Pattinson thriller Good Time, the Safdies turn everything up to 11: characters loudly talk over each other, clashing with the soundtrack, a style that risks alienating the audience. But the chaos is deceptively well-choreographed and the effect of total, unfiltered immersion is intoxicating.
For a city so often captured on screen, Uncut Gems lures us into a New York subculture that feels thrillingly unexplored and despite Sandler’s star status, his character work feels equally fresh and specific. It’s an intensely mannered performance and Sandler tows a fine line but we never see him as an A-lister who’s just “doing a bit”. He digs deep, without any noticeable vanity, as someone plagued with embarrassing desperation, pathetically tugging on the jackets of those he wants to be around.
It’s a thrilling experience to watch a film and a performance played at such a high pitch – the kind of unlikely high-stakes bet that Howard would indulge in. Sandler needs to be making more of them.