Adam Sandler triumphs in 'Uncut Gems'

A movie so compelling that it gets you to empathize with even worst of gamblers.

Adam Sandler and his wife Jackie (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Adam Sandler and his wife Jackie
The new Netflix movie that has just started streaming in Israel, Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, is set in 2012 but channels the spirit of the great gritty ‘70s movies. Just like in ‘70s classics, the Safdie brothers aren’t afraid to present an inherently unsympathetic protagonist, self-interested and even venal, but also intensely human.
The triumph of Uncut Gems is that the Safdie brothers have made a movie that somehow makes you care for its central character, a diamond dealer named Howard Ratner, and keeps you in suspense for its entire running time.
As Howard goes through a two-day odyssey that will lead either to redemption or hell, just around Passover, his desperation is so intense that it leads him to make increasingly self-destructive moves. While it’s easy to be critical of him every step of the way, somehow he manages to win you over to his side.
This is a testament to Sandler’s performance as well as the direction and the script. Sandler, who didn’t receive the Best Actor Oscar nomination many had predicted, has never been better. He has had only a handful of dramatic roles but he has been good before, in James L. Brooks’ Spanglish, for example. But none of his previous roles has called for him to carry a film or to display the range he does here.
He plays Ratner as an out-of-control schlub, a hustling businessman in a profession not known for its ethics, who does more than cut corners. He borrows baubles from other dealers and then sells them without paying, among other professionally suicidal moves.
He’s got an angry wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who plans to divorce him after the upcoming Passover Seder, and a tough mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who lives in an apartment he pays for. But what’s really tearing him apart are debts he can’t pay to loan sharks connected to his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), and the compulsive sports betting that has gotten him into this financial predicament.
His hopes are all pinned to a rare opal stolen from an Ethiopian mine in a disaster that is shown in the beginning, which he thinks will earn him a million dollars, and in his eyes, will solve all his problems. He manages to get NBA star Kevin Garnett (who plays himself) interested in buying the stone, which is set to be sold at auction. But he is juggling even more plates and if he drops one it could easily lead him to complete financial ruin, or even a much worse fate.
It’s not easy to portray compulsive gamblers in a compelling way – those who don’t gamble are likely to get impatient with these characters – but this is one of the best on-screen depictions of the syndrome. Ratner’s gambling is like the fantasies most of us have about some sudden upturn in our luck, but on steroids.
As he stumbles his way through the day before and after the Seder, the film resembles the tone of two Martin Scorsese movies, After Hours (1985), a nightmarish portrayal of a journey through New York’s nighttime underworld, and the last third of Goodfellas (1990), where the coked-out hero tries to manage dealing drugs, his family and his girlfriend as his paranoia destroys his capacity to make decisions.
It also brings to mind Karel Reisz’s 1974 The Gambler, as well as such ‘70s classics as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Robert Altman’s California Split (1974), movies with complex, self-destructive protagonists.
Some have criticized the portrayal of Ratner as antisemitic. He certainly speaks and behaves in ways that will offend many, but has this era of political correctness brought us to a place where every Jewish character must be cuddly and likable?
The real question is whether Ratner is believable, and I think anyone with even the vaguest understanding of New York’s diamond district will think he is. Most of us, if we’re honest, will see at least a little bit of ourselves – albeit in our worst moments – in Sandler’s Ratner, and that is what makes Uncut Gems memorable.