Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love has long been held aloft by Adam Sandler advocates as proof of the 53-year-old’s acting chops. While years of shoddy comedies have undone some of that good work, A24 and Netflix thriller Uncut Gems is another sorely-needed reminder of his obvious talents.
The latest film from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (their last outing Good Time saw a bank-robbing, peroxide Robert Pattinson take centre stage), Uncut Gems is not only one of the tightest, tensest American thrillers of recent years but also a fine addition to the New York-set movie canon. Sandler plays blink-king Howard Ratner, a compulsive gambler and the brand new owner of a rare and valuable black opal – the uncut gem of the title – stolen away from Ethiopian “black jews” after a 17-month pursuit.
With plans to auction off the opal for $1 million-plus and in debt to local loanshark Arno (Eric Bogosian) due to sports betting, all Howard needs is for the fates to smile upon him once again. However, when a chance encounter with the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett (playing himself) sees the basketball star lending the opal for longer than promised in order to harness its supposed “mystical” powers, Howard is forced to gamble with other people’s prized possessions – and cash – in order to retrieve the stone in time for the impending auction date.
Taking us from an Ethiopian opal mine to the streets of 2012’s NYC via Howard’s own colon – an early contender for best “opening” of 2020 – Uncut Gems marries its frenetic, fast-paced narrative of big bets and even bigger stakes with a plethora of bravura visual flourishes. In his endless quest for the next pay-off, Howard takes in neon-bathed nightclubs, pawnshops and even a family Passover meal, each location resplendent with its own unique sights and sounds. Add to that a pumping electronic soundtrack courtesy of Daniel Lopatin and a stellar cast (Sandler is ably supported by LaKeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel as Howard’s long-suffering wife Dinah and newcomer Julia Fox), and Uncut Gems is a film endlessly rich in tone and texture.
Already A24’s highest-grossing film of all time at the US box office (on $38 million), the odds have certainly been in the Safdie brothers’ favour when it comes to their most commercial offering to date. Combine that with Sandler’s unquestionable legion of fans – Netflix subscribers or otherwise – and Uncut Gems should reach the wide audience it so richly deserves. While this isn’t the type of film – or central performance – the Academy normally celebrates, perhaps we can even dream of an Oscar nomination for Sandler next week. As Howard himself exclaims: “I made a crazy risk, a gamble, and it’s about to pay off.”
Uncut Gems is in select cinemas from 10 January and on Netflix from 31 January.