To say Adam Sandler is like marmite would be an understatement; despite grossing over $2.4 billion worldwide at the box office, he is constantly under scrutiny. Yet despite some poor outings (Jack and Jill, Click and Little Nicky come to mind and quickly leave again), Sandler occasionally gives an absolute powerhouse performance – think Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love or Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. He has more talent than most people give him credit for, talent that was displayed ten-fold in his latest with the Safdie Brothers, Uncut Gems.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, an NYC jewellery store owner who acquires an Ethiopian opal worth $1 million, which when sold will get him out of debt with his brother-in-law. Yet, it’s never that easy. Howard is a reckless and arrogant man with a destructive gambling addiction. He lends the opal to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett who sees the gem as a good-luck charm. In doing so, Howard sets off a series of events, made worse by his own doing, that spirals through high stakes bets, family troubles and merciless debt collectors, with one of the most anxiety-inducing climaxes in recent memory. Seriously, make sure to breathe.

Sandler disappears into the role (which is no surprise as the Safdies wrote it specifically for him), imbuing the character with an engrossing depth and empathy not usually seen from the actor. It’s easy to both root for this wholly unlikeable person, as well as scream at him as his face weighs up another bad decision he proceeds to make. 

Yet Howard isn’t that far from what we usually see from Sandler. He’s flamboyant, obnoxious and quite childish – a good description for most of his filmography. What sets Uncut Gems apart is that instead of being overly fictionalised like his previous work, its grounded in a harsh reality with life or death stakes and places this larger than life man-child right in the middle, suffering the consequences.

Uncut Gems is comparable to the Safdie Brothers’ previous film, Good Time, due to the similar continual assault on its characters, and there’s no surprise that the partnerships with editor Ronald Bronstein and composer Daniel Lopatin have stayed. With the addition of cinematographer Darius Khondjis’ camera (which becomes increasingly agitated as Ratner does), alongside Lopatin’s twitchy electronic score and Bronstein’s unrelenting edit, the Safdies and co. have really begun to master their own unique brand of tense and distressing cinema.

Whilst the abrasive dialogue and frantic pace may be off-putting to some, the film is a raw and impartial observation of a troubled man who has put himself in some very hard times from which he cannot escape, and is worth watching for Sandler’s performance alone.

4 stars

Image: Movie DB

Thomas Hirst is a Screen Contributor.

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