Adam Sandler Gives Career-High Performance as Gambling Addict in ‘Uncut Gems’

Adam Sandler steps into his grittiest role to date in “Uncut Gems,” the latest drama from independent filmmakers Benny and Josh Safdie. The usually affable Sandler transforms to play Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler with a gambling addiction and little impulse control. Just as was the case for Robert Pattinson in the Safdies’ previous feature, “Good Time,” “Uncut Gems” is a game-changer for Sandler, as the brothers direct him to an Oscar-worthy performance.

Set in 2012, “Uncut Gems” follows a week in the life of Howard, beginning with his procuring a rare opal from Ethiopia, a stone he believes is worth a million dollars. It is his hope to sell the thing and pay off the debt he owes to his equally seedy brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), but as anyone who has ever been around a gambling addict knows, it’s never as simple as that. They’re always looking for that next high, and after his friend Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) shows up at Howard’s jewelry store with Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself in an impressive debut), he cannot help but to lend the NBA great the opal, believing it will serve as a good luck charm (he’s betting on the game, of course), in exchange for his championship ring. This sets in motion a chain of events that lead to a tense climatic sequence that includes a helicopter, some gun-wielding gangsters, and wads of cash.

While “Uncut Gems” is a male-driven film, it contains some spectacular supporting actress performances, including Idina Menzel playing against type as Dinah, Howard’s long-suffering wife. Still living under the same roof on Long Island, the pair are waiting for the right time to tell their kids of their impending divorce. Through this relationship, we get the best sense of who Howard is. Once upon a time he may have been a decent guy, but as he grew older he found it more and more difficult to get a handle on his compulsions, and now the mother of his children can barely look at him without containing her disgust. 

One of Howard’s compulsions is sex, and at his flashy Manhattan pied-à-terre lives Julia (Julia Fox), his sales associate/mistress. That relationship is threatened by none other than The Weeknd (also played by himself), then an up-and-coming performer who meets the couple at a club show. Fox turns what could have been a one-note role into a breakthrough performance, as she gives it her all and holds her own against Sandler, especially in the explosive scene in which they get into an epic screaming match in front of a line of gawkers at the aforementioned club, 1 Oak.

The Safdies succeeded in turning what is in many ways a typical midlife crisis story (apparently Howard is based on their own father) into a frantic roller coaster ride. Despite all the craziness, there are some smaller scenes that stand out. Sandler does a commendable job of showing different sides of Howard. Sure, he’s abrasive and selfish, but he does have a vulnerable side, and this shines through in a memorable little scene he has with his daughter in the family kitchen following her performance in a school play, a play he almost doesn’t get to see after two thugs lock him naked into the trunk of his own car. We also see him humble himself later on when he asks Dinah for a second chance. Unfortunately for him, she’s reached the limit of her patience with Howard, and it’s not long before almost everyone else around him follows suit.

Uncut Gems” opens Dec. 13 in select theaters, Dec. 25 nationwide.