Adam Sandler's welcome return to dramatic roles brings an anxiety-inducing drama that is somewhat successful.
Uncut Gems is the latest film to receive primary distribution in the UK via Netflix, after the release of The Irishman at the end of 2019 – certainly a hard act to follow. The film tells the story of Howard Ratner, an unstable gambling addict who owns a jewellery store in New York’s Diamond District. The titular uncut gem is a large black opal that Howard has become enamoured with, presumably obtained by not-quite-legal means from Ethiopia, and hopes to sell to make a large profit.
Howard is played by Adam Sandler; this performance has been seen by many as a redeeming role after a bunch of easily mocked comedies that have fallen more than flat. Sandler does a good job in portraying a central character who is hard to like. Howard is selfish and disrespectful, but it’s a hard task to take Sandler completely seriously. Howard’s ridiculous outfits and bipolar attitude don’t help his character feel realistic. With the image of a bad comedy actor, Sandler coming back into dramatic acting with a comical character does him no favours. Howard is obnoxious, difficult and quite frankly strange throughout Uncut Gems. However, there’s certainly the impression that no one else could play this character quite like Sandler.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is its constant attempt to make the viewer feel anxious. There’s never just one person talking at any given time in Uncut Gems, and trying to listen to everyone bombards the senses. It is clear that this is intentional and it’s an interesting technique. The Safdie Brothers’ film goes some way into making you hope that everything works out fine for Howard, not necessarily for his sake as he’s not really a good person, but because of the anxiety the whole affair causes as things keep going wrong. The effect may have been amplified if Howard grew into this addict persona gradually with the film starting calmer, creating more of an obvious change when things go wrong, but Uncut Gems bombards you with noise from the onset. There are plenty of fun, subtle nods to the film’s time period. Set in 2012, everyone uses older models of the iPhone and pop singer The Weeknd makes a brief appearance as an up-and-comer in the music industry rather than the hip-hop superstar he is today. This could have gone a bit further.
Perhaps the biggest failure of Uncut Gems is that it doesn’t fully suck you in; you’re not really that invested in the outcome as Howard is not redeemed at any point throughout the narrative. Regardless of how the film makes up for it in other areas, it is hard to hope for things to go well for him. Still, he never does enough bad things for you to hate the character and want him to fail – by the end you care somewhat but the film doesn’t try very hard either way. Overall, Uncut Gems is a fairly solid film made by Sandler’s performance in the lead role. It uses some interesting techniques but none of them manage to truly elevate the plot of the film, which is a fairly standard affair.
Uncut Gems, directed by Josh & Benny Safdie, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 15.