02 February 2020

First Impressions: Uncut Gems

I watched three films over Christmas and we'll talk about them over the next few days in order of what I thought was best to worst. A film that was incredibly buzzy but ended up with scant Oscar nominations, let's start with Uncut Gems (2019).

Let's start with some background. The Safdie Brothers are an excellent pair of directors perhaps most known for Good Time (2017), which may be why not many people have heard of them. They are far from mainstream and offer an unparalleled intensity while remaining engaging without being overwhelming or agonizing. Good Time was one of my favorite movies of 2017 and I was very excited to hear they were teaming up with Adam Sandler for their next joint.

This would not have worked with Rajon Rondo.
Sandler has a bizarre career. He's both vilified and extremely successful. He has some great moments of anti-cinema as well as some truly terrible moments for cinema. There are definitely a few shades to the kinds of roles he'll choose - either a total goof with his friends where he lazily plays himself, or an attempt at something more. It's frustrating because he seems self-aware. He's capable of Punch-Drunk Love (2003) or Funny People (2009) that can respectively direct his persona in an thoughtful way or comment on his own career. That he immediately followed up Funny People with the kinds of movies Funny People made fun of is still a huge step backwards.

That's just it - though. He's frustrating because he seems to not really care about public perception. He's rich, has great friends, and despite his childish immature persona, by all accounts is actually a great dad and family man. Why does he have to make challenging movies? It's not like he got into this business to be a serious artist. He's just a doof. Still, when we see glimpses of what he could be, it's aggravating to watch The Ridiculous 6 (2015). Murder Mystery (2019) was solid, though.

Adam Sandler is a bizarre pic for any Oscar-worthy independent film, but his manic aggressive energy seemed to match up well with the Safdie Bros' manic intensity. Uncut Gems is a fantastic film and one of the best of the year. People seem to generally agree but it feels as if it has had trouble breaking out into the mainstream, even though it is A24's second highest grossing film of all time, and will likely surpass Lady Bird (2017) for the number one spot by the end of its run. Success is relative. Good for A24 is not good for Sandler.

A few things are clear. This film is not typical Sandler fair. Nor is it typical arthouse fair. Most independent moviegoers may not know who Kevin Garnet is. This ends up being in a weird middle zone that was made pretty much exactly for me, who likes all of this nonsense. SPOILERS forever, let's get into the actual film:

Sandler plays a jeweler and degenerate gambler who lives life in a constant hustle. The movie is incredibly stress-inducing. There is constant movement towards the next impossible scenario and Sandler twists and squirms into bigger and bigger risks. Nothing goes his way. This is a really bad trait to have as an insane gambler. You want to cheer for him because despite being a total slimeball, Sandler is still incredibly charismatic. You can identify with disastrous assistants, customers, and bad strokes of luck that eradicate the best laid plans.

From the start he is making bad deals. The twists and turns are endless. The film interestingly takes place in 2012 and actually feels just slightly removed from the current day. Sandler gets in a fight with up and coming pop musician The Weeknd. And of course, Kevin Garnett and the 2012 NBA Playoffs feature more significantly that I ever thought possible in a movie. His up an down performance is finally explained by his obsession with an African rock gem that gives him mystical basketball powers. It all finally makes sense.

Sandler does an incredible job here, but the most surprising actor may be Kevin Garnett. He sells every scene, the desperation, the danger, the thrill and obsession of his gem pursuit. It's far better than Michael Jordan acted in Space Jam (1996). Might this be the start of a promising acting career for Kevin Garnett? I never thought I would write that sentence, but that's what kind of film this is.

Obviously, Sandler was snubbed for the Oscar, not even receiving a nomination. Looking back, of course the man who made Jack & Jill (2011) was never going to get the attention of the Academy. Despite his financial contribution to cinema, his career isn't deserving of a long-due award like an Al Pacino or Christopher Plummer was. That's okay. We all know it was the best of the year. He's brutal, angry, conniving, at the end of his rope, sweet, and excited from moment to moment. Through all this even though he completely disappears, he also remains undeniably Sandler. It's both a transformation and a role that no one else could ever do. Sure, it's Sandler, but the first step in getting over that is to actually like That's My Boy (2012), which I say unironically is one of the greatest films of our generation.

The rest of the cast does their job well, even if everyone is a little random. Idina Menzel shows up and doesn't sing. Judd Hirsch pops in and is old. LaKeith Stanfield is the right mix of lethargic and caustic as he continues to grow as one of our great young actors. This is also Julia Fox's first acting role and she's excellent as a naive but ultimately reliable girlfriend who definitely ends up a millionaire by the film's end. Even Eric Bogosian as the villain (kind of) with a good personal but tense professional relationship with Sandler expresses a great conflict of emotion up until the final scene.

While the film does tend to be plot heavy - it is really a collection of schemes, parlays, fast-talking, and double-crosses, it is also incredibly based on character. Sandler drives the plot like few other protagonists and it's a thrill to watch. We're witnessing self-destruction and even though middle aged white male self-destruction is insanely old hat by now, Uncut Gems feels fresh, and that has all to do with the Safdie Bros' uncompromising direction and the shock of seeing Sandler in this new role.

This is a film that only works as the film it is. Every scripting, casting, and directing choice would only work with the people involved being involved. It is truly a GEM in a sea of stones. We ought to talk about that ending though. The film keeps running forward and forward, with the noose tightening and tightening around Sandler's neck. He's out of ideas and basically improvising as he places one more insane bet, but with full confidence of Kevin Garnett and his magic Africa gem.

Against all odds he wins! He's a millionaire. All his problems are solved. Finally the tension is released and he's going to have a happy ending. But the Russian mobsters he's pissed off cannot abide his previous insults. BIG SPOILER so skip here - he's shot in the head hella dead. I was actually really upset about this. It was such a rip-off. We finally see him hit what he's been working on this whole movie and it's taken away from him!

But it would never end. He hasn't learned. He would blow this money, place another bet. He doesn't elevate himself from the cycle, in fact he's validated. He can't weasel out of this one, can't escape his sins. It's incredibly tragic, but the real tragedy is his failure to grow and escape his own hubris and compulsive behavior. With regret, he had to die. It sucks, but it's powerful.

So, this was great. You should see it and pretend Sandler gets the Oscar instead of Joaquin next week. What did you think?

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