Uncut Gems review Adam Sandler shines in frenetic drama

A towering performance from the often tiresome actor drives an anxiety-inducing film about a risk-addicted jewelry dealer

In Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers anxiety-inducing follow-up to Good Time, we spend over two hours attached at the hip to Adam Sandler, a prospect that might not seem particularly thrilling. But the guy who signed a mammoth deal with Netflix because it rhymes with wet chicks is also the guy who chose to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach, film-makers willing to look beyond the fart jokes to see an actor who just needs to be directed.

Both roles were particularly compelling not just because they represented such a dramatic departure from the kind of movie we associate him with but also because his style of acting was suddenly so transformed. Often when comedy stars go serious, you can see the shadow of their funnier selves in every scene, but when taken out of his comfort zone, the Sandler we know virtually disappears. There was humour in both Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories but it was awkward and intimate, more likely to make one shift in their seat than guffaw. Sandler has an under-appreciated ability to connect with the uncomfortable aspects of his more fleshed out characters, embarrassingly so at times, and his latest, arguably greatest, delve into drama pushes this to a whole new level.

He plays fast-talking jewelry dealer Howard Ratner, a man who spends his days frantically trying to make money while being followed by the men he owes money to, an exhausting lifestyle he cant seem to escape. But the more we get to know Howard, the less it seems like he wants to, forever inserting himself in increasingly precarious situations. Howard is the best, and worst, kind of antihero, caught in a trap of his own making, a way out always frustratingly in sight. As in Good Time, the Safdies have plotted out a perilous obstacle course for their protagonist involving the NBA player Kevin Garnett, a rare opal from an Ethiopian mine, a soon-to-be-ex wife and The Weeknd, and despite Howard continually testing our patience, we are unavoidably invested, sighing at his every misstep, figuring out whether we want him to succeed or fail.

Its an intentionally stressful experience, not just because of Howards aggressively frustrating character but because the Safdies take pleasure in our displeasure. The film packs in so many raised voices, blaring soundtrack choices and gaudy visuals that it often feels like a rather obnoxious sensory overload but were never alienated because theres a deceptive delicacy behind these excesses. Were hurtling through the world that Howard lives and works in and its not patronisingly translated or sanitised for us, its just presented as is, and I admired how atmospheric they made it, a world I never once doubted.

I also never once doubted Sandler, whose incisive character work here is probably the most impressive acting we have seen from him to date. It would have been far too easy to turn Howard into an overly mannered cartoon but Sandler opts for something far more precise and grounded. Its a performance entirely lacking in vanity he makes Howard buffoonish at times, unpleasant at others and despite being an immediately recognisable star, my idea of Sandler and what he represents quickly faded once the film began. Its a turn as immersive as the film around him and makes you crave more outside of his almost entirely useless Netflix deal.

Its a remarkable match-up between film-makers and actor and reaffirms the importance of that partnership, especially for a movie star stuck in a profitable rut. Sandler deserves more, and if he wants us to keep watching, then so do we.

  • Uncut Gems is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 13 December with a UK date yet to be announced

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