“Look in my eyes,” mews inveterate gambler, liar, philanderer, and NYC Diamond District hustler Howard Ratner to his exasperated wife, Dinah. “They’ll tell you what I’m feeling.” He is played by Adam Sandler, a.k.a. the guy who sang “The Hanukkah Song”; she is played by Idina Menzel, a.k.a. the lady who sang “Let It Go.” In the midst of a tense Passover seder, the two are struggling through a rare quiet moment within Josh and Benny Safdie’s panic-attack-inducing new thriller Uncut Gems. Reluctantly, she sizes him up, and considers this pathetic attempt to salvage their marriage despite all his aforementioned hustling/gambling/philandering, and smothers a disgusted giggle as she renders her verdict: “Your face—it’s so stupid.”
There is just no way that nobody has told Adam Sandler that, verbatim, in a movie before. Ditto “I think you are the most annoying person on the planet,” which is another of Dinah’s remarks. He’s made, like, 41 films and counting, and he played an objectively annoying person in the vast majority of them, and moreover at least half of those flicks are, as a whole, objectively stupid. And yet only here, only now, does someone (namely, the lady who sang “Show Yourself”) finally nail the Sandman’s essence, the genius and the idiocy, the hopeless attraction and the total repulsion. Uncut Gems, for both good and (for him, anyway) profound ill, gives Adam Sandler what he deserves. The question now is whether he also deserves an Oscar.
We’ve done this before; we started doing this with Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 rage comedy Punch-Drunk Love and never stopped. The notion that Adam Sandler screaming at people who scream back at him for 90 minutes might somehow register as award-worthy and Prestigious had not yet occurred to most people. But there he was, the shameless and deified (and screaming) star of Billy Madison and The Waterboy, now cosigned by one of the most critically acclaimed directors on the planet and engaging in hilariously disturbing pillow talk with Emily Watson. (“I wanna chew your face off,” she tells him. “I wanna scoop out your eyes, and I wanna eat them, and chew on them, and suck on them.”)
The critical verdict on Sandler for a generation has been He’s Great When He Wants To Be: soulfully self-loathing in 2009’s Funny People, tenderly flustered in 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). I melt every time Sandler and Grace Van Patten do their twee father-daughter piano duet in that one. “You got my hands, you got my toes,” he sings; “But luckily, I got Mommy’s nose,” she sings back.
That’s pretty close to “Your face—it’s so stupid,” but not quite close enough. We put Adam Sandler in a good movie for a change no longer suffices as an event, as a compelling argument, as the blueprint for a true contender. But Uncut Gems is the film that’s truly clicking, that got the reluctant superstar to do a lengthy magazine interview for the first time in 200 years, that compelled Sandler to threaten, on the air with Howard Stern, to make another movie “that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay” if he doesn’t get a gold statue for this one. (He didn’t get a Golden Globes nomination, it’s true, but at this point that might be a compliment.)
So why now, why this? What makes Uncut Gems special is that it’s a good-to-great Adam Sandler movie that after 40-odd tries best replicates the experience of living in his head, of not so much feeling his hot breath in our faces as actually breathing it in the faces of others. Everyone in this movie is screaming at everyone else all the time, bathed in sickly neo-noir light and drenched in flop sweat and seized by constant fearsome spasms of cartoonish rage. A very vivid and specific and almost comforting sort of cartoonish rage. The sort that can come from—or be inspired by—only one man. It is Peak Adam Sandler in terms of both (arguably) quality and (inarguably) the experience of being around, or just plain being, Adam Sandler. It is all the Him anyone, him included, can handle.
As I am constitutionally averse to horror, terror, bleakness, or cinematic anxiety in general, I approached Uncut Gems with my usual tremulous wimpiness. But the stress of this movie, to my mind, is not the too-empathetic I can’t bear to see anything bad happen to him variety, as indeed there is no movie at all if bad things (punched in nose; dumped naked into own car trunk; roughed up by the Weeknd’s entourage) aren’t happening to him constantly. What Sandler instead achieves, with Howard, is that he makes you root for him without, for a second, feeling sorry for him or even really liking him. He is coarse, and cruel, and gross. (“Holy shit, I’m gonna cum,” he announces upon first laying hands on the titular gems.) He is also helplessly self-destructive, and unfaithful in multiple respects, and loathsome even in his precious few quieter moments, and yet the more loathsome the more relatable he becomes. (The sight of him petulantly watching an NBA playoff game on his phone while putting his young son to bed wounded me deeply by resembling me slightly.)
The stress, then, is in the pure cacophony. A half-dozen tough guys mashed into a car and shouting at one another about resurfaced swimming pools. A lengthy jewelry-store dispute punctuated (but not quite interrupted) by a call from Howard’s doctor about his recent colonoscopy. An excruciatingly lengthy battle with that jewelry store’s faulty automatic door. It’s just chaos: grating, bewildering, nauseating, endless chaos. It is the apocalyptic sound of every cinematic Adam Sandler antihero ranting at one another simultaneously, Happy and Billy and Nicky and Barry and Sandy all struggling to burn the same oxygen.
This can also be, of course, very, very funny: Sandler has especially great rapport with both Julia Fox (as Julia, his jewelry-store employee and mistress) and, bizarrely but transcendentally, Kevin Garnett (as a spectacular version of himself). With Julia, his best moments tend to be either phenomenally loud (a post-Weeknd-brawl screaming match outside a nightclub) or relatively quiet. (As a peace offering, she gets his name tattooed on her ass, to which Howard, who has previously been described as a “fucking crazy-ass Jew,” responds, “You can’t get buried with me now.”) But Howard’s late-movie pep talk with Kevin Garnett, just before an extended climax involving the most stressful reairing of a real-life NBA playoff game ever committed to film, might be the highlight of Uncut Gems overall, if not Sandler’s whole career: He invests the words Let’s fuckin’ bet on this with more motivational gravitas than the locker-room speeches in Hoosiers, Miracle, Friday Night Lights, Rudy, Remember the Titans, and (in spirit) Animal House combined.
Uncut Gems is the grinding, electrifying sound of Adam Sandler hitting yet another gear, sure, but it’s also the first time since his gleefully knuckleheaded ’90s glory days that an Adam Sandler movie has successfully hit his gear and stayed in it. Blockbuster comedians have generally chased Oscar glory by Getting Serious, by tamping down their wanton charisma in the service of something more dignified. (Think Jim Carrey’s own late-’90s attempt at respectability via Man on the Moon and The Truman Show.) But the Safdie brothers may have finally unlocked the Sandman’s true potential by amping up the righteous fury and man-child hedonism until it’s just too terrifying to be funny anymore but still manages to be funny anyway. The movie looks him in the eyes without winking, without even blinking. Sandler might very well deserve an Oscar for dragging us through it. Then again, we might all deserve some sort of award for surviving it.