There’s a moment in the second act of UNCUT GEMS where Howard Ratnor (Sandler in the greatest performance of his career) is pounding on a bathroom door of a hazy nightclub, frantically trying to uncover his mistress (played by the revelatory Julia Fox) and The Weeknd together, all while Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is playing. I felt absolutely exhausted watching Sandler discover his fears and wildly flail his fists at the Weeknd as the pop star spits in Sandler’s face and calls him “a pussy”, all while Julia (the mistress) screams hysterically, but it was in that moment that I became acutely aware of the fact that I was experiencing a cinematic masterpiece.
UNCUT GEMS was the second-best film of 2019 (I’m not sure PARASITE could have been topped) and one of the ten best films of the previous decade (I have it squarely at number 10, to be fair). It captures the essence of New York City, gambling, frenetic mania, and capitalism better than I could’ve ever possibly imagined an Adam Sandler star-vehicle getting released in 2019 could.
Unlike most any other film that you would’ve been able to find Sandler starring in for the last 15 years, UNCUT GEMS feels like a movie that was made with supreme craftsmanship and care (to be fair, this should be expected when you have a movie helmed by the Safdie brothers, as opposed to “movies” helmed by Sandler himself, but I digress). The Safdies do an impeccable job with this film, both as directors and writers (Ronald Burnstein is also credited as a writer). The film feels wholly authentic, undoubtedly because of the Safdies’ keen eyes and careful attention to detail in regards to capturing New York City and the inhabitants of the city.
Julia Fox is most definitely going to be a superstar. The last time I walked out of a film being so blown away by the performance of a little-known supporting actress and predicting her to experience a rapid ascension towards stardom, it was 2013 and I had just watched Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Now, it’s 2020 and Margot Robbie just became a two-time Oscar nominee. Check back in a few years and see if Julia Fox doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.
The character of Julia was based off of Julia Fox (so much so that the Safdies left the name unchanged by the time the script was green lit), but that fact shouldn’t be used as a means to discredit Fox’s performance in any way, and it must be noted that UNCUT GEMS is Fox’s first acting gig, too. There’s something mystifying about every shot that features her. She has mysterious eyes that are absurdly alluring, and by the end of the film (which features Fox in a brilliantly tense casino sequence that is one of the film’s most harrowing), every audience member should be just as captivated by her as Howard is. She’s the heartbeat of the movie.
LaKeith Stanfield has churned out some pretty incredible performances over the past few years (ATLANTA, GET OUT, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU), but he had a really remarkable 2019, what with his prominent goodness in KNIVES OUT and then his unnerving stare being one of the most memorable aspects of UNCUT GEMS. His character, Demany, could have a film just following him. In most films, it would be a rather thankless role, but Stanfield makes him disquietingly gripping. UNCUT GEMS is littered with performances like this, largely due to the Safdie’s ability to pull everything possible out of each of their characters, regardless of the size, and Stanfield is far and away the best example of this. It’s a career-defining performance from one of the best young actors alive right now.
Eric Bogosian (who has always been a rather underrated actor) is quite wonderful in this, as well. It truly took me a minute to realize I was watching the same man who plays presidential nominee Gil Eavis in SUCCESSION (the best show on television right now) play the menacing Arno (the man pursuing repayment from Howard), but as soon as it dawned on me, I was flabbergasted. He delivers one of the best lines in the film, “I heard you’ve resurfaced your fucking swimming pool. Do you know how that makes me feel?” absolutely brilliantly. It was also quite fun to see Idina Menzel (star of both Broadway’s WICKED and both of the FROZEN films) doing some meaningful film work. She’s a renown stage actress, but for most of her career, she’s stayed out of the limelight, as far as film goes. Here, she’s a wonderfully flippant Dinah, wife of Sandler’s character, chastising him and berating him at every turn (and rightfully so).
I would be remiss to not mention Kevin Garnett in this movie, who plays himself en route to leading the Boston Celtics to the 2012 NBA Finals, all while trying to acquire a rare opal from Africa from Howard. When I first saw the trailer starring Garnett, I became slightly dubious, not because I didn’t trust the Safdie brothers, but purely because I didn’t expect one of the 25-best-NBA-players-ever (he is) to be able to deliver a truly compelling performance alongside a cast of standouts at every turn, but man, he really does deliver.
And this all brings me to Sandler, who gives a truly tour-de-force showcase in the performance of his life as Howard Ratner. I’m not an Adam Sandler fan at all. In 2013, I wrote a long personal essay about why Sandler was the most poisonous “creative” in Hollywood, having made two of the worst films I’d ever seen (JACK & JILL and GROWN UPS II) and four of the ten worst films I’d ever seen. As a writer and creator, Sandler is a hack. In UNCUT GEMS, Sandler is an unmitigated superstar.
Perhaps this is an unfair way to judge acting, but the most captivating and effective acting to me is acting that projects a story forward like a locomotive train. Physical transformations are impressive, sure, but if you transform your appearance and vocal cadence in service of a boring movie that doesn’t feel like it moves, who cares (I’m looking at you, Gary Oldman)? It’s hard to care about “good” acting if it isn’t in service of a good story. Like DiCaprio in WOLF, Toni Collette in HEREDITARY, Dan Kaluuya in GET OUT, etc, Sandler as Ratner joins an exclusive club of actors/actresses that propel their movies into elite company.
UNCUT GEMS is a suffocating film that never allows a moment to breathe, and that’s due in large to Sandler and his performance. Howard is supremely confident and the ultimate salesman (he truly is good at his job, and there’s a moment when he is first selling the gem to Garnett that Fox gives him a look and we as an audience are expected to understand this). He also feels as if he’s flying by the seat of his pants as he makes choices all throughout the film that are genuinely surprising. His line reading of both “This is me. This is how I win.” at the end of his harangue to Kevin Garnett in the final act of the film and the sincerity of his “I don’t deserve it.” in response to another character getting a tattoo of his name should’ve warranted him an Oscar nomination (he gives the best lead actor performance this year).
He’s incredibly annoying in this, but as an audience member, you simply cannot stop watching him, and even despite his annoying tendencies (he’s a bad husband and parent, he has a severe gambling addiction, or at least an addiction to thrills), you also never stop rooting for him, and that is a testament to the performance Sandler gives. You shake your head every time he makes ANOTHER misguided attempt to hit big, but you can’t help but be at the edge of your seat, teeming with excitement over what choice he’s going to make next. It’s about as good of a recent performance as I can think of.
Daniel Lopatin’s synth/prog-rock score drones through the movie in the best way possible. It glimmers and shines and in the end, provides the audience with one of the more haunting and memorable final 30 seconds of any film from 2019. It’s mesmerizing, even though it’s mostly subtle. The big musical sequence featuring The Weeknd (as himself, performing one of his best songs ever, “The Morning”) is also superbly crafted and showcases his music while still allowing the actors breathing room to dart through the space. My only gripe with the music (and it truly is a minor one) is one moment near the middle of the movie where LaKeith Stanfield picks Sandler up to go to Philadelphia and Rich Homie Quan’s iconic “Type of Way” is playing. This is an anachronism, as Quan’s song came out in 2013 and this film takes place in 2012 (it’s such a good song, though, that I can almost let it slide).
This is one of the more stressful film experiences any viewer can probably have. Tension is ratcheted up to a high level from the start of the film, and as it progresses, it only reaches more and and more of a fever-pitch. The only moment to breathe is in the final shot, as the synth comes blaring in and the camera zooms in on Sandler’s teethy smile. I haven’t been able to shake that image from my mind since I initially saw the film. Go see the movie and find out why. It’s worth it.