Adam Sandler is notorious for starring in bad films. From “Jack and Jill” to “Grown Ups,” it seems as though Sandler’s characters play into a modern form of slapstick comedy and poorly-done antics that almost never quite succeed. Rarely, in the past two decades of Sandler films, have audiences found a standout piece, one that shows the possibilities and depth of Sandler’s acting career. This year, with the release of “Uncut Gems,” Sandler has begun to show a new side of his career.
Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, “Uncut Gems” chronicles the life of a gambling-addicted jewelry salesman, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), who obtains a valuable gem in order to pay off his debts. This crime-thriller captures the struggle of balancing family, work and piles of loans accrued from a lifetime of betting.
The film opens with the discovery of the mythical gem in Ethiopia, an opalescent rock with promises to transform Howard’s career and preserve his future. The scene feels not unlike other classic adventure films and sets the mood of the rest of the movie. The gem is soon smuggled into the United States in the body of a dead fish. Before long, Howard lends it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) for his big game as a good luck charm, marking the beginning of his tragic fall from grace.
Throughout the film, Sandler’s character backs out of promises and continues to gamble the little amount of money he has away. Every character he meets seems to build a dislike for him due to this evident dishonesty, from his family — particularly his wife (Idina Menzel) — to those he works with.
Above all, “Uncut Gems” emphasizes the power of addiction and its pervasiveness beyond a single individual, into the relationships they hold with others and all other aspects of their lifestyle. By the end, even audience members felt a slight distaste for Sandler’s character. He was a disappointment to his family and loved ones in ways that felt by choice and openly neglectful.
Based on critics’ reviews, “Uncut Gems” has marked a positive and much-needed transition in Sandler’s career, even in spite of his character’s mix-up between TNT and ESPN. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wrote, “This is the best character Sandler has ever played.” Currently, the film is on track to be the highest grossing film at A24, a record currently held by “Lady Bird” at $49 million. Interestingly, despite the critics’ ravings about the movie, the audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes remains roughly 51%.
For many reasons after watching the film, I found myself siding with the general audiences’ perception. Sandler was an incredibly unlikable character who seemed to voluntarily place himself in situations that put himself and others in danger. His actions, like spending large portions of his savings on sports bets, were of his own volition. However, as I have had time to process the film and the character of Howard Ratner more, I have come to appreciate the reality Benny and Josh Safdie presented, the complexity of addiction.
Ratner’s environment is seemingly built on enabling his addictions. Running a jewelry store, battling off loan sharks, living in New York City — all of these things empower the very gambling problems Ratner is struggling with. While not justifying his reckless actions against his family, the world he exists in certainly did not provide simple means to avoid temptation.
Outside of this discussion on fixation and compulsion is an underlying tension between the United States and the rest of the world. To obtain the very gem that plays a central role in the film, Ratner decides to exploit an Ethopian-Jewish community in order to profit the most. In a way, examining the role that addiction plays in our everyday lives is a critique of capitalism, the very structure that supports and, in fact, encourages the exploitation of developing nations and minority groups. Ratner’s definition of success relies on limiting the chances and opportunities of another group.
Thus, “Uncut Gems” provides a unique perspective on grappling with addiction and the destructive capabilities of a capitalist system. While it may take more than one watch to enjoy, “Uncut Gems” is definitely a film that audiences should not skip.
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