In Uncut Gems Adam Sandler portrays Jewish character Howard Ratner, a diamond dealer in New York City with a serious gambling addiction.
Adam Sandler has made a very successful career for himself in comedy, generally playing the same role in critically panned, commercially popular, movies. He has stretched a few times, yet audiences only seem to be interested when he is making vulgar jokes using goofy voices. Due to that, he rarely steps out of his regular onscreen persona. His newest project, the tense drama Uncut Gems, is a captivating character study featuring the best performance of his career.
Howard Ratner is a diamond dealer in New York City with a serious gambling addiction. He owes a lot of money to dangerous people and is unable to stop himself from risking it all. The movie consists of Howard trying to stay ahead of everyone else as he struggles with his angry wife, his much younger mistress and his business.
Uncut Gems is about addiction. It is about a man who does not feel alive unless everything is on the line. On paper, it does not seem like Adam Sandler should be the star of something best described as deeply nerve-racking. After seeing it, I cannot think of any actor who could have portrayed Howard’s desperation, anger, desire and need with more raw power than Sandler did. Sandler shows a man who cannot live without constantly chasing his high. No matter what anyone says, he knows he can get that win. All of his issues come from this obsession.
Sandler is not likable in the role. What he does is make Howard relatable, believable and, above all else, fascinating. It is not easy to watch him attempt to talk his way out of the unpleasant situations he puts himself in, yet I could not look away. He is so committed to who this man is that I forgot I was watching Sandler. He was just Howard Ratner. In a year full of tremendous acting, it may very well be the single best performance of 2019.
One of the more intriguing primary elements of Uncut Gems is that Howard is Jewish. His religion is referenced many times, including a work colleague calling him “a crazy Jew,” and there is even a scene depicting a family Passover dinner. Also, the opal Howard is hoping will turn his fortunes around was originally discovered by Ethiopian Jews. The directors, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, are Jewish, as are Sandler and Idina Menzel, who plays his wife. A couple of lines imply that Howard’s family is fairly religious and there is a stereotype that a lot of Jews work in the jewelry industry.
It is useful in showcasing another aspect of his life that has been discarded in favor of trying to win big. While he claims it as his faith, it is clear gambling is his actual religion. Where his Judaism comes in handy is in the details. The words he uses, the holiday traditions, etc., make the world of Uncut Gems more specific, more real. Showing parts of his Judaism as another thing in his life he has ruined helps create a well-rounded character that makes this truly memorable.
Some stories feel like they happen as you watch them. Uncut Gems is that kind of movie. The end is inevitable only in the sense that Howard is incapable of living any other way. It is a continuously compelling character study centered on a fantastic performance that should certainly earn Adam Sandler at least an Oscar nomination, if not a win. If you are looking for a light-hearted crowd-pleaser, do not see Uncut Gems. It is a challenging experience, though a pretty great one.
4½ out of 5
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