Adam Sandler is a so-called comedian, a yuk-yuk funny guy first and a journeyman actor second. He already made big bank, thanks to lowest-common-denominator dreck such as *googles Adam Sandler Nineties/Noughties comedies*. Oh, that one where he played the Israeli hitman-turned-hairdresser was good – You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008).
Then he made colossal bank when the streaming-era goldrush washed up in his lap. Netflix signed him to a production deal that, last year, had Sandler earning $39.5 million according to Forbes, who placed him at Number Eight in their highest-paid actors list.
So far those films have been unremarkable, forgettable even. That said, I can remember that one with Jennifer Aniston and Luke Evans, the old-fashioned murder-mystery called, um, Murder Mystery. But I can only remember it because it came out this year. Still, what do I know? Netflix reported that 30.9 million households watched it in its first 72 hours on the service, making it the biggest film opener in the company’s history. Surprise and, indeed, kerching: Netflix have commissioned a sequel. To date, subscribers have watched over half-a-billion hours of le cinema Sandler.
Now comes Uncut Gems, his second Netflix joint this year. And guess the fuck what? It’s brilliant. Firstly, it’s brilliant because he’s not “acting” for laughs. If you recall the top-to-bottom excellence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) in which Sandler played a lovelorn sadsack opposite a killer soundtrack from Jon Brion (Fiona Apple’s producer), you’ll know the man has dramatic chops. He just barely ever uses them.
In Uncut Gems, he uses them, and then some. It’s directed with blistering energy by the Safdie Brothers. Having spurred a career-best performance out of Robert Pattinson in the similarly frantic, panicky, New York-set Good Time (2017), Josh and Benny do the same with our erstwhile funnyman.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweller whose second name has blackly comic ramifications for British readers of a certain age (or their parents). (To quickly recap: in 1991 Gerald Ratner, boss of high-street jewellery chain Ratner’s, described his family business’s goods as “total crap”, with a particular pair of earrings being “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long”, which was careless to say the least. Especially when the comments knocked £500 million off the value of his business.) A jittery wheeler-dealer in New York’s diamond district, Howard deals eye-dazzling, boulder-sized bling to basketball players, rappers and the generally extravagant.
Howard also has a high-rolling sports gambling habit, which he funds by pawning and borrowing against gems and rings he “looks after” for his clients. Naturally, he’s also in hock to some heavies.
It’s not going to end well, is it?
And that’s before we factor in his catastrophic marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel), who lives with their three kids in the family home out on Long Island. Howard splits his time between tense domesticity and the lover (Julia Fox) shacked up in his Manhattan apartment. She’s an assistant in his jewellery store, but also – in a slightly baffling side-story – takes photographs of her friend The Weeknd. The musician plays himself and ends up in a fight with Howard outside a bathroom at a private club gig.
It’s definitely not going to end well.
Of course, basketball-fanatic Howard has one big betting score in mind, a win he’s convinced is his. He just needs to offload a particularly precious uncut gem, dodge the heavies on his tail, participate in his family’s Passover celebrations, keep his wife onside, keep Julia onside and persuade basketball legend Kevin Garnett (also playing himself) to smash it at a forthcoming game.
None of which, on paper, sounds particularly radical or new. But playing Howard, all wolfish (fake) white teeth, dad-leather-jacket, try-hard middle-aged jewellery and sweaty desperation, Sandler is sensational. His is a nerve-jangling performance that keeps your eyes as locked on him as Howard’s are on the TV screens showing the games on which he has all his money – all his hopes – staked.
There is the odd burst of old Sandler-style physical comedy. For example: in the middle of their kid’s high school talent show, Howard’s wife goes outside and pops the trunk of the family car, only to find her husband emerge, near-naked, bruised and frazzled with a “nothing to see here” grin. But ultimately this ratchets up the dread, not the laughs. Imagine Ray Liotta at the coke-addled climax of GoodFellas, but that stress and agitation spun out and strung out over 135 minutes. Disaster, and possibly brutality, are always only a pounding heartbeat away.
Shout out, too, to New York art-scenester Fox, in her first film role (and in print issue #2 of The Face). She’s a revelation as the glamorous twentysomething, inexplicably in love with her inept boss and who’ll do anything to help him land that big win. And props to Oneohtrix Point Never’s score, a seemingly purposefully cheap-and bleak-sounding electronic backdrop that only amplifies the stress, tension and agitation.
Magnificently cut from a central performance we’re obliged to call 24-karat, Uncut Gems shines bright – and hard – like a diamond.
Uncut Gems is in cinemas in America from 13th December, and in UK cinemas from 10th January and on Netflix UK from 31st January.