It has been a long time, possible forever, since anyone has written that one of the year’s very best movies stars Adam Sandler. Nope, it’s not a rerelease of “Billy Madison” or the director’s cut of “Happy Gilmore,” it’s a crime thriller from acclaimed indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie called “Uncut Gems.”
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a walking, talking raw nerve. A New York City jeweler, his life is a mess. His business is failing, he owes everyone in town money and yet cannot stop gambling. He’s planning on leaving his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) for new girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox)—who also works in his store—and the damn security door in his shop is on the fritz.
Like all hustlers he’s always looking for the big score and thinks he may have found it in, of all places, the History Channel. After watching a documentary about mining in Africa he hatches a plan to get his hands on a rare Ethiopian black opal he figures is worth upwards of one million dollars. He has a buyer in NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who thinks the gem has mystical powers that will help his game, but Howard needs more cash upfront than the basketball player is willing to pay.
He’s trying for a win, the kind of windfall that involves great risk, but will the risk be worth it in the end?
Watching “Uncut Gems” is an exhausting experience. Howard’s jittery personality is brought to vibrant life by Sandler. For two hours he’s like a NYC traffic jam come to life, complete with the shouting and jostling. He’s the architect of his own misfortune, constantly in motion, bringing chaos to all situations. With handheld cameras the Safdies capture Howard’s gloriously scuzzy behavior, luxuriating in the character’s foibles.
Sandler has breathed this air before—most notably in “Punch Drunk Love”—but he’s rarely been this compelling. He brings his natural likability to the role but layers it with Howard’s neurosis, frustration, conniving and even joy. It’s a remarkable performance, powered by jet fuel, that, by the time he is locked in the trunk of his own car, naked, will draw you into “Uncut Gems’” dirty little world.