‘I’ ON CULTURE
Adam Sandler has a new movie out, Uncut Gems, which is a tough, almost excruciatingly in-your-face film that probably will catch many Sandler fans by surprise. This is a different Sandler. All of his shtick is present but, for a change, it is used to create an interesting flawed character stuck on a roller coaster that is heading toward his own destruction.
This is a deep dive film by Benny and Josh Safdie into the world of the gambling addict. A warning: this movie is not a fun ride. Do not expect the usual Sandler fun and games. Addiction is bad, all the time. And gambling addicts, just like others, ruin not only their own lives, but those of the people who love and depend on them.
The movie begins in 2010 when a rare and valuable black opal is stolen from a mine in Ethiopia. We next meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) while getting a colonoscopy. But that might be his pleasantest moment in the film. He is a hustler, pushing sales wherever possible and cutting corners. He owes huge gambling debts, most specifically $100,000 to loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian). His marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) is ending thanks to his affair with Julia (Julia Fox). He has high hopes of getting ahead when he gets the opal, which could be worth as much as a $1 million.
Demeny (LaKeith Stanfield), his assistant, brings in basketball player Kevin Garnett, playing himself, as a customer. The player becomes obsessed with the opal and wants to hold onto it for luck, putting up his championship ring as collateral. Howard then pawns the ring to make a bet and things really go off track. That leads to further disaster as he searches for the opal, leading to a fight over Julia that messes up that relationship. He speaks to his father-in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch) about the opal at a family Passover dinner but Arno, who it turns out is his brother-in-law, overhears and gets interested. And then the fun really begins as Howard tries to get himself out of his troubles by digging himself in deeper.
The Safdie brothers are part of the tough-guy filmmaker school. There is no pussy footing. Howard is simply not a nice guy. He is not nice to his wife or to his mistress. He is OK with his kids when he remembers to pay attention to them, but that is not very often. He knows that he is living on the edge. He realizes that Arno might very well kill him and can even understand why it could be justified. But he just finds it impossible to stop.
The whole cast is excellent, but Sandler really stands out. Normally he is the one actor where web site Rotten Tomatoes has a huge gap between the very low ratings of his films by critics and high ratings by the public. This one is different. The critics are almost all raving about his performance, but many of his regular fans are not happy. They like him as the regular guy, a bit goofy, but still charming. Sandler never slips into the nice guy character. He is feral, panicked, running on adrenaline throughout. There are few laughs.
The rest of the cast is also good. Menzel as the betrayed wife has just the right edge of bitterness but allows us to see the kind of warmth she once had for Howard, which he drained out of her through the years. Fox is very good as the mistress. She is a far cry from the usual cutout character type we see in films.
Bogosian had a very tricky role, forced to balance out family versus business. I liked Stanfield as well, possibly the most moral of all the characters. And Kevin Garnett was excellent playing himself. That might sound strange, but he manages to show himself in a more heightened role, one that in some ways is self-mockery.
This is an exceptional movie. It is not for everyone. It is definitely not a comedy and is very rough. But if you like gritty movies, you should see it.