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IN-DEPTH MARVEL: Adam Sandler pulls no punches in ‘Uncut Gems’

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Adam Sandler can be difficult to watch for his fascinating portrayal of Howard Ratner, a hopelessly self-destructive gambler. Photo courtesy A24

as anyone ever watched a movie and managed to both love and hate it simultaneously? Some films possess absolutely mesmerizing moments that defy expectation, but make us cringe and wince from anger. I felt that way about Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” which featured some beautifully staged moments of comedy and tragedy, but eventually devolved into something so ludicrously adorable, I left the theater angrily griping about the final scene. The same kind of crazy bipolar pendulum swing can be found in the new, insane character study “Uncut Gems.”

The film ultimately will be remembered for Adam Sandler’s hypnotic portrayal of Howard Ratner, an upscale jewelry store owner with a crippling gambling addiction that fuels his entire existence. Unfortunately, that fuel is constantly set ablaze by Howard’s lack of impulse control and penchant for self-destructive behavior. 

We meet Howard as he hangs over the ledge of an epic downward spiral. He owes large sums of money to a number of unsavory characters and is days away from announcing to his children his marriage is over. His life is a boiling pot of water, seconds away from pouring over and scalding everything and everyone he holds dear.

Directors Benny and Josh Safdie do a marvelous job of creating a full-tilt pressure cooker as soon as the movie begins.  We see the frantic pace Howard works under while trying to peddle high-priced jewelry to willing buyers, including high-profile basketball players like Kevin Garnett.  Every scene with Howard is like a bump of cinematic cocaine: It starts with manic energy and eventually wears off so audiences feel empty and hopeless. Most of the story exists on a razor’s edge used to cut fresh rails and the powder-covered mirror Howard refuses to stare too deeply into. 

We follow Howard as he weasels his way from one interaction to the next, convinced his next big bet is going to help him claw his way out of this epic crater that continues to deepen with every thoughtless, explosive action. The audience and characters who inhabit the malevolent maelstrom that is Howard’s life recognize he’s hopelessly self-destructive. Howard is wired differently, a guy who always believes he’s one bump away from achieving bliss—even when it’s so apparent the floor is disintegrating beneath his Amadeo Testoni shoes.

We’ve seen Adam Sandler give performances that defy the comedic mediocrity to which he’s become accustomed. Every so often he delivers a transformative character, like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” I propose Sandler’s most iconic performance will come in “Uncut Gems.” He’s pitch-perfect and brings such a wonderful sense of sadness and tragedy to a grinning idiot. 

I think there are people who will find “Uncut Gems”  difficult to endure. It really is an almost joyless tour of Howard’s troubled existence. The man is dragged through a metaphorical acre of broken glass, committed to scheming his way into bloody oblivion. There will be those who find Howard grating and struggle to endure his trials. There is little attention paid here to making viewers comfortable. The goal is to make the audience squirm along with Howard and marvel at the depths he is willing to plumb. In this way, the film is a massive success.

“Uncut Gems” is an experience that might leave audiences a little winded by its conclusion. Whether or not they find the movie to be worth their time is how comfortable they are spending two hours with some really unlikable, difficult people. 

I was mesmerized by “Uncut Gems.”  Adam Sandler deserves any and every acting award for which he is eligible. He makes the cast of “The Irishman” look like a bunch of drunken hobos. Yet, there’s a part of me that wonders if I’ll ever watch “Uncut Gems” again. It’s a singular story that feels like it will lose a little bit of luster driving subsequent viewings. This isn’t a film that’s going to put a smile on anyone’s face, but is more likely to leave them slack-jawed. 

Uncut Gems

Rated R, 2 hrs 7 mins
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Starring Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian

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