The best performances by Adam Sandler, the ones that demonstrate what a magnetic actor he can be when throwing himself into a role (as opposed to taking a vacation on the Happy Madison dime), aren’t really in movies that cast him against type. Instead, they tend be in the ones that take the essential qualities of his comic shtick and somehow deepen them—the films that turn the very concept of an “Adam Sandler comedy” on its ear. In Uncut Gems, the exhilaratingly tense and deliriously funny new movie by Josh and Benny Safdie, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who lives his life in a state of constant, self-inflicted chaos. Barreling into every scene with motor-mouthed brio, the one-time SNL player taps into a charismatic mania we’ve never quite seen from him—he’s like a young Al Pacino, bristling with ego and neurotic energy. Yet Howard isn’t so different, in basic profile, from some of the other id-driven clowns on the star’s résumé. He’s obnoxious, immature, prone to fits of rage and pleasure alike: a Sandler misfit all the way.
Howard is a gambler in the purest sense. He’s not just hooked on the wins. He’s a junkie for the uncertainty, high on the queasy death-wish apprehension of impossible odds. Striking out from his base of operations, the Brooklyn jewelry shop where he hocks blinged Furbies to the celebrities guided his way by an unofficial business partner (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard has a constant stream of cash running from the pawnbrokers to the bookies. He owes money all over town, but bets every cent he gets his mitts on—a habit that’s put him in the crosshairs of some impatient lenders with hired muscle. They’re not the only ones totally exasperated by Howard and his self-destructive self-absorption. “You’re just about the most annoying person I’ve ever met,” someone says to his face. Notably, that someone is his wife (Frozen’s Idina Menzel).
Remember the scene in Punch Drunk Love where Sandler, in the first truly “serious” riff on his comic persona, paced nervously around his office, the music percussively amplifying his frazzled emotional state? Uncut Gems sustains that level of stress for nearly two and a half hours, making Barry Egan look downright relaxed by comparison. The film basically opens with a zoom into a glittering gemstone, taking us on a CGI tour of its molecular architecture, until—in a prankish reveal—we realize we’re staring at the inside of a colon. This is the first time we see Howard, lying on his side in a hospital bed, a camera up his ass. It’s about the only moment in the movie where he’s not on the frenzied go. The gemstone turns out to be a black opal from Ethiopia, the new prized possession of his collection. It becomes the catalyst for a caper of pure reckless compulsion, as Sandler’s incorrigible wheeler and dealer outruns loan sharks while compounding the stakes of a dangerous hustle.
Set in 2012, the plot partially and improbably revolves around that spring’s NBA Eastern Conference finals; literally keeping balls in the air, Howard ends up roping Celtics forward Kevin Garnett—playing himself in an amusing supporting turn—into his house-of-cards gambit. (The other major celebrity signifier of the time period is a cameoing The Weeknd; “He’s going to be major, even though he’s from Canada,” goes a line of hilarious off-screen dialogue.) Yet the Safdie brothers’ vision of New York feels, as usual, more out of time: a seedy mirage of the city as it once looked on screens in the ’70s and ’80s. These sibling filmmakers, authorities on Tri-State dysfunction, are addicted to chaos, too. Their last film, the gripping one-crazy-night crime drama Good Time, locked us into the headspace of another desperate schemer, a two-bit criminal played by a magnificently scummy Robert Pattinson. Uncut Gems may be the furthest the Safdies have strayed into the sphere of mainstream entertainment, but that’s very much a relative distinction; their style is still confrontational and flagrantly underground, even with a heavyweight cinematographer, Darius Khondji, providing the grubby, claustrophobic close-ups.
The film’s roaring dramatic and comic engine is Howard’s impulse control issue, his inability to stop making the wrong decisions. You watch with a pit-in-the-stomach dread usually reserved for people in horror movies wandering blithely into mortal danger. Early in the film, the Safdies establish a ticking-clock deadline and then proceed to have their hapless hero completely ignore it—an ingenious assault on the nerves. They assemble a whole, rich ensemble of character actors and interesting nonprofessionals, then reduce most of them to enraged and flabbergasted spectators. (Eric Bogosian, the Talk Radio playwright, gets one of the better roles as a fed-up relative looking to collect what he’s owed—a dynamic that leads to an amusingly tense Passover.) Of everyone caught in the orbit of Howard’s obsessive self-sabotage, only his twentysomething mistress (Julia Fox, in a terrific breakout performance) has any patience left for him. It takes a while to recognize her loyalty as its own form of addiction: the devotion of a coconspirator in bedlam.
All the while, the Safdies audaciously enhance the anxiety with one of their most abrasive soundscapes: a mixture of Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, disconcertingly loud noises (like the persistent buzz of a broken automatic door lock), and a blaring electronic score that sometimes seems intent on drowning everything else out. Of course, the real source of anxiety is Howard himself, who’s responsible for every one of his problems. In the last 45 minutes, the film reaches a spectacular fever pitch of almost suicidal abandon—the havoc wreaked by a man who just can’t resist and would rather stop trying to. We watch his foolhardy flirtation with ruin in a state of shocked disbelief that borders on admiration. The queasy thrill of Sandler’s live-wire performance is the way he keys us right into Howard’s electric joy, putting everything on the line, consequences be damned. It’s a pure shot of the gambler’s high, and Uncut Gems gets us hooked on it, too. By the end, you want to hurl and cheer.