I had initially viewed “Uncut Gems” in theaters in the first week of January of 2020 and had chosen to forgo writing a review. I had just returned from a 10-day road trip and was responsible for seeing “1917”, “Richard Jewell”, “Little Women”, and “Bombshell” in the same week to catch up on what I had missed during my hiatus and to save time, most of my opinions about those films were condensed to small nuggets in the margins of other posts. However, the world being on lockdown has provided me with a second opportunity to give this film the attention that it deserves.
I recollect that this film quickly elevated itself into the cultural conversation as a “comeback” vehicle for Adam Sandler. Sandler has a large and very loyal fanbase due to his successful run on “Saturday Night Live” and his dominant run of 90s comedies, but has recently found himself on the butt-end of cinema with duds like “Jack and Jill”, “Blended”, “That’s My Boy”, and “Pixels” among others. Though he never lost the love of his fans, critics rightfully put his career in the ground over the past 2 decades, but when the first footage of the film was released, the entire world seemingly was rooting for its success.
The selling point of the film was always Sandler, and I recall praising it after my first viewing, but I was curious if that recognition was truly warranted or the product of misplaced wishful-thinking. As it turns out, I found his performance even more tactful upon my subsequent viewing. Interesting vocal tendencies that I might have overlooked originally became more apparent, also suggesting a fair amount of preparation went into developing the character of Howard by Sandler. This is not an example of Adam Sandler being himself in a more sophisticated film, rather a genuine example of an actor creating a character and putting in the effort to effectively make the role unique. Through his filmography, Sandler has proven to be capable with the right motivation and right material, to deliver quality performances, but he takes it to a new level here.
Howard Ratner is not the same lovable idiot role Sandler has made a career off of. He is a man of sleaze. From the way he rips off people at his jewelry shop, to the way he is hiding his separation from his wife and an affair with his employee from his children to the total irreverence he treats the prospect of consequences with, Howard is a legitimate scumbag. And yet, you are always rooting for him, even when he continuously puts every relationship, both personal and professional, in immediate jeopardy because of his debilitating gambling addiction. The best way I can describe it is that Sandler shows just enough for you to sympathize with him, even if you cannot empathize with his decision-making. You find yourself yelling at the screen, pleading with the man to just stop, cut his losses, and go back to his family, and even when he ignores your cries, you are still hopeful he will learn his lesson before the next incident.
“Uncut Gems” is a rush of adrenaline that will elevate your heart-rate without giving you much of a chance to catch your breath. Characters frequently yell over each other’s dialogue. Lighting is harshly juxtaposed against brightly colored sets and costume designs. The settings and characters are saturated with material extravagance and hedonistic behaviors. The only honest description is that the film is stressful which might not be easy to digest for everyone.
Those who favor the tone have suggested it was among the best films of 2019. With careful consideration, I would put it right on the fringe of a top-10 film but I cannot elevate it into that category. It is very good and perhaps in a year of more standard-level competition it would easily fit in the top-10, but something is lacking. While it is exceptional at being itself, it lacks any catharsis. There is not as much substance to chew over post-viewing and my biggest criticism is that it lacks layers that most of the other films have. If you cannot relate to the story of addiction or cannot see yourself in Howard’s family or lifestyle, it is not much more than quality acting and an exciting tone.
A retrospective examination of “Uncut Gems”, just a few months after its theatrical run, provides a unique perspective of the concluding year of the 2010s in cinema. Objectively speaking, 2019 was one of the strongest years of cinema of my lifetime, and when everyone is overachieving, it is even more difficult to stand out. I personally believe that Sandler deserved to be nominated for his performance here and I would put it up against almost every leading performance by an actor that got more love. In a more standard year, “Uncut Gems” could have potentially been an Academy Award Cinderella story thanks to its unmatched tone, challenging dialogue and “controversial” subject matter, but alas, it was not to be. Unable to breakthrough, “Uncut Gems” somehow failed to garner a single nomination from the Academy and thusly lost out on gaining a legacy that many had hoped for it. But even without earning prestige, “Uncut Gems” serves as a shining beacon to remind us all what can be created when films are driven by passion and genuine care for the material.
I give “Uncut Gems” an 8.7 out of 10
Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, LaKeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Kevin Garnett, Mike Francsesa, Judd Hirsch
Directed by: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie (as the Safdie Brothers)
Runtime: 2 Hours and 15 Minutes