Tense situations often provide for the best drama and leave bystanders watching things unfolding on the sidelines captivated in awe.
It’s a compulsion that pulls us to slow down and gawk at accidents and train-wrecks; the very thing that allows a television program like “The Jerry Springer Show” to exist.
Cinematically, that uncomfortable draw that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats can be the same feeling that prevents people from seeing an incredible film more than once.
The much heralded, Golden Globe-winning “Joker” is like that, as is the latest feature from Josh and Benny Safdie, the writer-director brother indie darling tandem behind 2017’s standout crime drama “Good Time.”
With their new movie “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie brothers crank the volume up to 11 on their signature brand of frenetic, gritty New York City film spectacle in a must-see, then likely never see again drama.
Adam Sandler gives the transformative performance of his career as Howard Ratner, a diamond district jeweler whose obsession with sports gambling and the big score puts him at odds with clients, loan sharks and his estranged family.
Sandler disappears so fully into Howard that it’s often hard to remember Sandler’s comedic work during “Gems.” There’s an eccentricity to Sandler’s performance that emboldens audiences to live inside the world of the film and accept this familiar character on his own terms and not as it relates to Sandler.
When audiences watch an actor like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, they often find themselves engulfed within their performances and still never take their minds off the fact that De Niro or Pacino are playing the parts. Who they are as personalities can never be totally removed from the work.
Sandler’s Howard pulls viewers in so fully – in large part thanks to the Safdies’ pitch-perfect screenplay – that the comedian himself fades away behind the glasses and goatee, something Sandler has never been able to pull off before in a 20-plus year movie career.
The film’s ensemble cast boasts a bevy of talented character actors with ruthless, memorable work including Eric Bogosian as a vindictive loan shark, Broadway and “Frozen” star Idina Menzel stunning as Howard’s angry wife Dinah and Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s assistant and client valet.
Former National Basketball Association star Kevin Garnett delivers a tremendous, intense performance as a fictionalized version of himself in one of the best acting performances by any major sports athlete, enhancing the film with an authentic, controlled turn that pushes the drama in new directions.
The film’s breakout star is newcomer Julia Fox, who pulls focus away from Sandler in a wonderful supporting turn as Howard’s employee/mistress. Fox charms audiences in a way that feels manipulative but largely isn’t and her presence on screen is reminiscent of the dynamic energy Margot Robbie brought to her first major role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
What sets “Gems” apart is the film’s relentless uncertainty where literally any outcome or repercussion can occur at any time. This keeps viewers apprehensively engaged and tense, forcing them into Howard’s corner as every action he takes feels like a miniature wager with ever-growing stakes.
It’s a tremendous pairing of screenplay and performance that allows the chaotic pace of the film to genuine and earned rather than deliberately contrived. The Safdies, who have sought Sandler for the role of Howard for the better part of a decade, perfectly pen a character to fit the longtime comedic actor’s unique quirks in such a way that opens up Sandler to a world of new opportunities cinematically.
Shot on 35 mm film, the visual artistry of “Gems” maintains a raw, gritty vibrancy and the Safdie brothers play with lights and colors to keep the dynamic energy of their screenplay alive regardless of the situation. This works especially well during a scene where Howard enters a club filled with blacklights which gives the screen an off blue hue complemented by a bright neon orange hoodie worn by a character antagonizing Howard that visually represents the story the Safdies are trying to tell.
“Gems” is likely far too controversial for major awards season considerations although the movie will likely be heralded by critics and independent film groups.
Sandler has an outside chance for a best actor nomination if newer members of the Academy rally behind him and the film, though it’s more likely their support will go to Eddie Murphy’s turn as a struggling comic turned movie star in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.”
“Uncut Gems” clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best independent films and a dramatic career pinnacle for Sandler that needs to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated.