Good Choices, by Bob Connally

29 Dec

Twenty years ago, Adam Sandler was famous for playing a variation on the same character in virtually every movie he was in. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Waterboy all existed as vehicles for Sandler to play a man who never matured past the age of 8 and who could be given to sudden bouts of unbridled rage. Even in movies such as The Wedding Singer or Big Daddy, the characters he played never strayed far from his comfort zone and the writers and directors who tailored those films to his style never challenged him. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson in 2002, coming off of his 3 hour, 8 minute operatic ensemble drama Magnolia

Punch-Drunk Love is a comedy less than half of Magnolia’s length and focused on one character, a man named Barry Egan. Barry discovers a loophole in a pudding promotion that allows him to stack up bonus air miles at an incredible rate. He is also an incredibly lonely, sad man who is treated horribly by his many sisters. They treat him like he’s 8 years old and he is given to sudden bouts of unbridled rage. He finds a light in a woman (Emily Watson) who accepts him for who he is but he also becomes the target of a ruthless “Mattress Man” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has his personal information. 

Anderson cast Sandler because he knew Barry was a character in his wheelhouse, but he also believed that Sandler could find something deeper than he ever had before. Instead of a cartoon character or a paper thin light comedy protagonist, Barry is a three-dimensional man who fully experiences joy, love, and fear, who overcomes obstacles, and who ultimately grows as a person. It’s a layered and oustanding performance in a unique and truly wonderful movie (my personal favorite Anderson film). It was also soundly rejected and misunderstood by Sandler’s fans and he has spent the better part of the past two decades making movies (if we can even call them that) that aren’t even vehicles, they’re excuses for him to hang out with Kevin James, Rob Schneider, and David Spade. He has occasionally poked his head back out for something like Reign Over Me or The Meyerowitz Stories, but for the most part he has stuck to making puerile trash with his buddies. So it’s no surprise then that so many people have forgotten – if they even knew to begin with – that Sandler is capable of so much more. Enter the Safdie brothers.

It’s 2012 and Howard Ratner (Sandler) is the owner of a New York jewelry store. He has racked up gambling debts with several people and his life and marriage are crumbling. But Howard believes his ship has come in when the uncut opal he has spent the past year and a half trying to buy from Ethiopia arrives. One of Howard’s employees (Lakeith Stanfield) meanwhile has found a new high profile customer in NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Taken with the opal, Garnett asks to take it with him to his playoff game that night for good luck. A reluctant Howard explains that the opal is set to go up for auction but he finally agrees, accepting Garnett’s NBA championship ring as collateral. From here, Howard’s series of terrible decisions come at an incredible rate.

Uncut Gems is decidedly the best film Sandler has been in since Punch-Drunk Love, but where Anderson’s movie had a whimsimcal sense that things would work out, this feels more like having a panic attack while you enjoy popcorn and gummi bears. It’s entertaining but overwhelming and anxiety inducing. We watch as Howard just continues to make every worst choice he can at an unrelenting pace while the camera follows him intensely, the musical score by Daniel Lopatin hammering away at us in our seats. It seems to get louder as the film progresses as though Lopatin wants to make our eardrums bleed.

In the hands of many directors this story could be engrossing but the Safdie’s just grab us with the aforementioned intense filmmaking in such a way that we get caught up in Howard’s life, feeling excruciating pain as he just runs head first into big trouble. This effect is achieved largely through Sandler’s performance as well. Despite his many lazy career choices, Sandler has an innate likability that gets us to care about Howard. We want him to finally make a good choice, to get out from under the people threatening his life, for him to come out on top and maybe quit while he’s ahead. Throughout however there is the sense that Howard simply cannot stop and that disaster is inevitable. Sandler keeps us hoping however and that carries us through the movie. Can he somehow come out with the biggest win of his life? In its way, Uncut Gems is like a higher stakes version of Sandler’s career. (You’re better than this, Howard/Adam. We know you are.)

Across the board, Uncut Gems is an outstanding film in every facet from its cinematography to its editing and featuring some excellent supporting performances alongside Sandler’s, most notably from newcomer Julia Fox as a store employee Howard is having an affair with. Garnett even delivers a better performance than what we generally see from professional athletes in movies. 

Uncut Gems is not a pleasant movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the sound of “a fork in a garbage disposal,” to paraphrase Chidi from The Good Place. But as you can tell from everything else written above that is high praise. This is the kind of experience one rarely has in a movie theater and it’s a film that will stick with you.

Adam Sandler is now into his 50s and I truly hope that this time he will continue to make films that utilize his true talents to the fullest. Don’t go back to making unwatchable drivel with Kevin James. I’m rooting for you, Adam. Make good choices.

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