In the years since Adam Sandler first shaba-dooed his way into our hearts on "Saturday Night Live," he has turned his early comedy ideas, which cast him as a lovable goofball caught up in outrageous situations, into virtually its own genre. The phrase "Adam Sandler movie," conjures up a very specific, and almost always accurate image. It's a formula fans love, and which has kept Sandler at the top of the comedy heap for years.
With the release of A24's UNCUT GEMS, however, the superstar wades into some unfamiliar waters. The film is a character-driven thriller made by indie darlings Josh and Benny Safdie, the filmmakers behind GOOD TIME. It casts Sandler in an intense and demanding dramatic role — one he plays so perfectly that it could lead to an Oscar nomination, and possibly even a win for Sandler.
In UNCUT GEMS, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner and gambling addict who is constantly behind on his payments to increasingly-impatient loan sharks. He just can't help himself; whenever Howard gets his hands on some money he throws it down on another bet in the hopes of making a huge score. His family and love life are fraying at the same time, and a lifetime worth of questionable decisions all come back to haunt him over the span of a couple of days.
Sandler excels in the role because he makes all of Howard's decisions and desperate gambles seem like decisions that a person could actually make. He's not pulling harebrained schemes just for the sake of the plot. He's an addict, and his compulsive behavior is rooted deep in the character. If you saw GOOD TIME, the last film from UNCUT GEMS filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, you understand just how expertly they can ratchet up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable, as someone like Howard tries and tries to make things work out. (Daniel Lopatin, who provided the nerve-shredding score for GOOD TIME, also returns. So get ready to get jittery.)
[Image Credit: Columbia Pictures]
Sandler's most recent films have been broad, high concept Netflix comedies. His last theatrical feature that was not animated was PIXELS, released in 2015. He's also been a mainstay in films like the HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA series, in which the comedian gets to play a version of the Dracula archetype. In many of these roles, Sandler's talent, and the sense that he's a performer with the power of a force of nature have all been very much present. But most of his gigs have been friendly in some way.
While it's true that "Adam Sandler movie" connotes a specific kind of film, Sandler does have more than a passing history with dramatic and risky material. In 2002 he starred in Paul Thomas Anderson's oddball PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, and his vulnerable performance as an anxious soul ready to boil over won universal acclaim. The actor's role in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE created a whole subset of Sandler fans who have waited nearly 20 years to see him tackle something similar — and UNCUT GEMS is it.
Sandler also played roles in comedies that fall more on the dramatic side of the spectrum, such as SPANGLISH, REIGN OVER ME, FUNNY PEOPLE, MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN, and THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. (Fun fact: he also almost played The Bear Jew in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.) In most of these projects, Sandler is still able to tap into the charming, affable persona that made him one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet. That's also part of the equation in UNCUT GEMS, if only because, in Sandler's new role, you can see shades of the genial likable guy Howard might once have been.
With UNCUT GEMS, he roars through a story that is utterly unlike anything he has done before. All of Sandler's talents are unleashed: His controlled but manic energy, his pleading likeability, and the sense that he is just a hair away from losing control. This movie challenges the actor like almost nothing we've ever seen him do, and he very much rises to that challenge.
From the moment UNCUT GEMS debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, critics have praised the movie. The Telegraph said, "It is the most arrhythmia-inducingly tense film I have seen in years: by the end, I felt as if I’d spent the last two hours being dangled by my ankles over a crocodile pit." Every review highlights Sandler's performance and notes how remarkably deep he submerges into the character.
This year's Best Actor Oscar category is already unpredictable, with wild cards like Joaquin Phoenix's performance in JOKER set to disrupt any bookmaking on the awards. But Sandler could easily secure a Best Actor nomination for UNCUT GEMS. That would be his first-ever Oscar nomination. After years of watching him as a comedy and box office heavyweight, it's fun to root for Adam Sandler, the underdog.
All images courtesy of A24, except where indicated.