Funnybone tickling specialist he may well be (which in itself is a matter of contention), but every so often Adam Sandler takes it upon himself to play it straight, and history has shown that the results were worthy of praise. His latest dabble in drama is no exception, taking the lead in the second exhilarating stint from the Safdie Brothers with Uncut Gems; their follow-up to that peroxided-Pattinson-starring thriller Good Time. Now, if you thought that was a breath of fresh panic-filled air, then prepare yourself. Josh and Benny Safdie seem to strip the oxygen from your lungs within the first 20 minutes, all from behind a cash register.
After witnessing a sneaky excavation in an African jewel mine for a rare and valuable opal, we’re flung halfway around the world to another deep dig (sorry, not sorry) as frantic and ferret-like Howard Ratner (Sandler) is cutting stones and dodgy deals in his jewellery shop nestled in New York’s Diamond District. There he waits for the opal that becomes the sought after hot potato of the story, passing hands and gaining the attention of pro basketball player, Kevin Garrett, who sees the rock like a good luck charm, though its properties almost feel as if providing quite the opposite for the rest of the film.
Uncut Gems, like Good Times before it plays like a forgotten polished rock of its own, dug up from the late 70s or early 80s of a New York sidewalk.
From the off, it’s clear that the intoxicating vibe the Safdie’s had bottled in Good Time has been pumped full of adrenaline and attached to a firework with their latest. Within the confines of Ratner’s store, they conjure a claustrophobic anxiety attack wrapped in gold chains and gemstones. There’s a relentless hustle and bustle that builds, simply because you’re trying to decipher the disjointed conversations happening in it and what is going through Ratner’s head, all of which is absolute chaos, playing to the tune of Daniel Loptain’s hypnotic score.
Every character is caught in the 100 mph whirlwind that seems to gravitate to Harold, with some being taken for a ride, as a result. Fighting the final wave of a loveless marriage, and batting off loan sharks he owes a fat wad of cash to, Sandler’s shifty stone swapper is hanging on by the skin of his incredibly white teeth from the minute you meet him, and it sets the tone that you’ll be sweating as much as he is by the film’s end. The worst thing about it all is that it’s just the way he likes it. “This is me! This is how I win!” he proclaims at one point, but the playthrough is one nail-biting, hair-pulling deal or trade-off after another and yet somehow, Sandler’s on top of it all.
There’ve been varied batshit crazy characters from this disputed king of comedy over the years, but none match the panic-laced decision-making skills of Harold Ratner. It takes a matter of minutes for him to put his worst foot forward on this 135-minute rollercoaster, and you immediately fear for where he’s going to go next. And yet, the infamous funny man could so easily have failed to stick the landing at moments and doesn’t. Instead, he’s completely in control of a man who is anything but, caught on the wrong end of altercations with bruisers, basketball stars and brokenhearted ex-wives-to-be, it’s one long cold-sweat covered facepalm after the next, and the Safdie brothers are savouring every one of them.
Big screen producing siblings aren’t anything new, but the Safdie’s are proving to be ones determined to make their mark, and this is another strong example. Pushing all the wrong buttons in just the right way to get the tension rising, Uncut Gems, like Good Times before it plays like a forgotten polished rock of its own, dug up from the late 70s or early 80s of a New York sidewalk. Hypnotic and addictive, when you’re caught in its gaze, and Sandler’s career-best performance, it’s hard to look away until the final frame. Flawless.