The role of a reckless diamond dealer is perfect for Adam Sandler. An actor famous for playing annoying louts in comedies, Sandler goes viscerally dramatic as the grating Howard Ratner in “Uncut Gems.”
The performance has earned Sander much praise, many awards nominations and an early best actor win from the National Board of Review.
Written and directed by the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, with their frequent collaborator, Ronald Bronstein, “Uncut Gems” plunges viewers into a messy slice-of-life story about a New York City jewelry store owner. Laughs are largely not in this dark picture.
Sandler’s Howard, a guy who’s always on the hustle, pursues precarious schemes like it's sport. Although his desperate existence is dependably unpleasant, Howard’s risk taking and endless conflicts attract spectators — like racing fans waiting for the next crash or motorists passing the scene of an accident.
An obsessive gambler, Howard habitually raises the stakes. His heedless chase for the big score combined with the movie’s close, frenetic style make “Uncut Gems” a tensely claustrophobic tour de force. Along the way, there’s a chaotic stream of deal making, yelling, arguing and swearing. And because Howard often drives his customers, debtors and family nuts, his life sometimes becomes painful contact sport. A loopy electronic soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin, another Safdie brothers regular, bubbles in and out, almost as mockery.
Sandler easily becomes the weaselly Howard. The character’s skinny glasses, manicured goatee and mustache and middle-age weight can’t obscure the actor’s famous face and presence. Sandler’s latter-day Jerry Lewis voice and the kvetching his character does are dead giveaways, too.
In “Uncut Gems,” an uncut opal extracted from a mine in Ethiopia becomes the principal object of Howard’s dreams and schemes. But true to his love of risk, Howard lends the precious stone to an NBA basketball star shortly after he’s smuggled it out of Africa. The stone’s raw beauty mesmerizes Kevin Garnett, a real-life pro who plays himself.
Though “Uncut Gems” is a showcase for Sandler at his most unhinged , Garnett and other supporting players more than carry their weight. Singer-actress Idina Menzel (“Wicked,” “Frozen”) co-stars as Howard’s long-suffering wife, Dinah. Her understandable exasperation with her husband and the fleeting regret he feels about having a girlfriend (Julia Fox) provide some of this drama’s funnier moments. Sparks also fly when Howard’s father-in-law, played by veteran actor Judd Hirsch, shares a high-stakes sequence with his vexing son-in-law. And real-life music star the Weeknd shows up in a nightclub scene that careens into bedlam.
Much of the movie’s action and chaos takes place in Howard’s compact jewelry store. A hustler named Demany, played by actor-rapper Lakeith Stanfield, is a frequent visitor. Demany earns commissions for sales to the hip-hop and sports stars he steers Howard’s way. It’s Demany who introduces Howard to Garnett, the Boston Celtics player who becomes obsessed with Howard’s Ethiopian opal.
Eric Bogosian co-stars as Anamed Arno, a sullen loan shark who trails Howard in hopes of collecting a delinquent gambling debt. Arno’s patience apparently at its end, he brings two thugs (Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik) along for what becomes an increasingly dangerous pursuit. But the lunatic life of anxiety Howard leads may be what keeps him feeling alive.
Whether Sandler wins more awards for “Uncut Gems” or not — he has nominations from the Gotham Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and Broadcast Film Critics’ Association — the psychologically gonzo, intensely physical performance he delivers in the film proves he's earned the honors.
NOW PLAYING: At AMC Baton Rouge 16, AMC Mall of Louisiana 15, Cinemark Perkins Rowe and XD, and Movie Tavern Juban Crossing (Denham Springs).
MPAA RATING: Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)