As soon as I exited a recent screening of “Uncut Gems,” I needed to express my feelings about the sheer cinematic bliss I’d experienced for two hours nonstop.
“Just got out of ‘Uncut Gems,’ the new Adam Sandler movie coming out,” I texted a friend. “He is sooooo good in it.”
“Oh cool! What’s it about?” she responded.
“He plays a sleazy diamond dealer,” I texted, adding a laughing emoji.
“Wow!” she shot back. “So he does dramatic movies? Pulling a Steve Carell!”
Sandler is best known, of course, for his many potty-humor comedies that pimply teenagers love and their parents hate.
But some film aficionados are aware that he’s also come into his own as a dramatic actor over the past couple of decades. His foray into that realm started around 2002 with Paul Thomas Anderson’s bizarre “Punch-Drunk Love,” and continued most recently in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” in 2017.
Still, the name Adam Sandler in pop culture continues to evoke that feeling one might experience after lighting a bag of poop on fire on your nemesis’ doorstep. Or perhaps his name brings to mind his lovable Chanukah song.
That could be about to change. His performance in “Uncut Gems” might just bring him an Oscar.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“Uncut Gems” is the sixth film by Josh and Benny Safdie, a pair of 30-something Jewish brothers from New York who have earned serious acclaim for their gritty indie works that probe the Big Apple underworld. Those films include “Heaven Knows What” (2014), about a homeless heroin addict, and “Good Time” (2017), starring Robert Pattinson as a bank robber.
In “Uncut Gems,” Sandler plays Howard Ratner, an unscrupulous jeweler in New York’s extremely Jewish “Diamond District.” Howard’s marriage to Dinah (played with steely resolve by Idina Menzel) is in tatters after he has an affair with a young employee in his shop.
Also, Howard has a debilitating gambling problem. He pools money he makes from sales and under-the-table deals to bet impulsively on NBA games, and is in debt to the kinds of characters whom no one wants to be indebted to.
But there’s so much more going on in “Uncut Gems,” above and below the surface, that words won’t do the visceral experience of watching the film justice.
It’s a frantically paced freight train of suspense and emotion, capped off with a bombshell ending. It’s full of nuanced underlying commentary on consumerism, the downsides of international trade, addiction, family life and even basketball. Former NBA star Kevin Garnett portrays himself in a slightly alternate universe in which he believes a rare stone that Howard lends him improves his play on the court.
The film also deeply explores modern Jewish identity. Like the Safdies — who are distant relatives of famed Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, designer of Baltimore’s Coldspring Newtown community — Howard is part of a tight-knit Syrian Jewish clan rooted in New York.
While he fits in comfortably among the other Jews of the Diamond District, Howard is still a proud outsider to the wider world of wealth with which he regularly interacts. His Jewishness defines him to that world. To Garnett and his posse, he’s a “crazy Jew,” not a crazy jeweler.
The Garnett role was originally written with Amar’e Stoudemire — the fellow former NBA star who has converted to Judaism and played pro ball in Israel — in mind. A large part of the plot revolves around an opal from Ethiopia that takes on a mystical significance for everyone who comes into contact with it. Howard believes it’s a kind of gem coveted by Ethiopian Jews, which endears it to him even more.
Through it all, Sandler is uncannily good. He deploys a subtle but idiosyncratic ethnic New York accent. He oozes an eagerness to please his many clients and the many people he owes money to. He explodes with frustration when conflict caves in on him.
Sandler not only keeps up with the film’s frenetic, disorienting pace — he pushes it forward.
Sandler has been great in dramatic form before. But this is a new level for him, an intense character study that ranks alongside other Oscar-winning performances from years past.
In fact, Sandler, 53, just beat out the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro and Adam Driver to win the National Board of Review’s award for best actor, an early indicator of Oscar success.
The Safdies originally wrote the lead role for Sandler, but he didn’t see the script for years. As Sandler told sports radio host Dan Patrick in a recent interview, the actor’s manager kept the script from him at first, thinking it wasn’t a good fit.
“Maybe he was right, I was a little young for that movie 10 years ago,” Sandler said.
Years later, after seeing some of the Safdies’ other films (and after Jewish actors like Jonah Hill and Sacha Baron Cohen were considered for the part), Sandler grabbed the role. But he admitted to being scared about tackling such a dark character.
“I read the script and I was terrified. … I said, ‘I’m terrified to do this, it’s two months of being this guy,’” he told Dan Patrick.
During the filming of “Uncut Gems,” Sandler said he would at times call his wife, Jackie, asking for her help to prepare for an emotional scene. But eventually it all clicked.
“I grew to love being the guy,” he said.
Well, it shows.
“Uncut Gems” gets a limited release Dec. 13 before a nationwide release on Dec. 25.
Gabe Friedman writes for the JTA global news source.