A brutal and funny and endlessly entertaining drama, Adam Sandler becomes his purest form in Josh & Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems”
I should apologize upfront for a secret pun in the title of this article. When we are introduced to Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) at the start of Uncut Gems, it is from inside-out. Literally. His colon, more specifically, as Ratner has a colonoscopy performed on him in a doctor’s office. An opening sequence shows the mining of a gem in Ethiopia in 2010 concludes with the camera pulling into the incredible structure of a black opal. That opal will eventually cause chaos on the streets of New York. But that gem structure shifts quickly to become a pink tunnel, and a light pulling through it to reveal that we are looking at Howard’s inners. It’s gross and in ways sad, but it sets the tone for a character that we learn to hate with every passing scene for the next two and a half hours. And it’s hysterical.
After multiple festival screenings, including at the New York Film Festival earlier this fall, a lot has been said about Uncut Gems. But from my perspective, I mostly encountered Uncut Gems as a massive joke on the life of a Long Islander. I was born-and-raised on Long Island, and this movie reflected something very home-like to me. I realized very quickly that I knew every character in the Ratner family in a brutal and hysterical way. From Long Island’s own Idina Menzel playing a mother who just is fed up with her husband’s life of luxury in the city to a daughter that reminded me of too many people from my high school, the Ratner family structure is almost a satire of something I know far too well.
Howard, himself, is a caricature. He is a fifty-something Jewish dad who makes money by buddying up to younger and more successful (and often Black) people in order to prove that he is cool enough to hang. His much younger mistress, Julia (played by a phenomenal Julia Fox in a breakout performance) works with him and brings him to clubs where he buddies up to people like The Weeknd (playing himself). There’s also an associate named Demany played by LaKeith Stanfield that introduces Howard to the real Kevin Garnett. More specifically, Kevin Garnett circa the 2012 NBA semifinals, when he had a historic run in real life. And thus the scene is set for Howard’s journey to hell.
When Howard lets Garnett borrow the titular uncut gem that we saw being mined in the film’s opening sequence, it leads Howard to the brink. He’s down on money, with gambling debts aplenty. In a sense, Howard has everything coming to him. And that’s what Sandler sells. When he encounters an evil Eric Bogosian as a man he owes money, the chase scene happens on the grounds of a high school. After Howard gets invited to the Weeknd’s show, he almost pummels the musician before bodyguards attack him. And it’s funny!
Adam Sandler is one of the best selling comedians of the past decades, but with Uncut Gems, he is just the best version of himself. Instead of Adam Sandler making dumb voices and faces, he keeps the same dumb voice and face until it becomes the character. Sandler tells sexist and racist jokes, but instead of being punchlines they get him punched. I laughed almost the entire movie, more than I did at Grown Ups or Jack & Jill at least. And it’s laughing because the jokes are at Sandler’s expense. We root for him to succeed because we the consequences, not because we want him to win. As a result, we get something as goofy and enjoyable as anything I could have imagined. For once, Adam Sandler got a win.
Uncut Gems arrives in theaters nationwide on December 25. It stars Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, and more. Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie.