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In ‘Uncut Gems,’ Adam Sandler Is a Portrait of a Man on Fire

The comedian has made a career playing endearingly foolish characters. But in the acclaimed new crime drama, he tries something far riskier: depicting an unlovable schmuck hellbent on self-destruction.

Generally speaking, movies don’t disturb me. Like a lot of other critics, I use “disturbing” plenty of times when describing films — about depictions of injustice, say, or creepy horror movies, or whatever — but I’m rarely, actively disturbed by what I see on screen. After all, it’s just a movie.

Then there’s Uncut Gems: I’ve seen it twice now, and both times I’ve felt stressed, anxious, even disturbed. It’s not that there’s anything particularly graphic or unsettling about what’s shown on screen, but I can’t think of a film so determined to let its audience stew in its own discomfort. The new thriller from Josh and Benny Safdie isn’t a cringe comedy — it’s not a study of awkward or abhorrent behavior. But it is the story of a man who metaphorically starts off the story with his hair on fire and then proceeds to douse himself in gasoline again and again over the next two hours. He simply cannot save himself because, deep down, he doesn’t want to change his behavior. He’s happy living in flames.

As you’ve probably heard, Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a middle-aged New York Jew who runs a jewelry store and has debts he can’t pay. There are guys who come to his place of business and threaten to beat him up over his fiduciary obligations, but Howard isn’t overly concerned. He just talks fast, throws out some oily charm and keeps walking, confident he can stay ahead of those who want him to pay up — specifically, his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), who will resort to violence if that’s what’s ultimately required.

Life shouldn’t be so difficult for Howard. He drives a nice car, has a swanky house in the suburbs with his family (including wife Idina Menzel) and a sweet apartment in the city where he stashes his hot young girlfriend/employee Julia (Julia Fox). Yet he’s broke because he can’t cure a gambling addiction that sees him making complicated bets on basketball games. But the problem is, Howard isn’t seeking a cure: He’s powered by the exhilaration he gets from the certainty of his own bets — which include his gutsiest yet. He’s recently ponied up a ton of dough for an African opal that he’s convinced he can parlay into a big score. Howard will sell the stone for millions, settle his debts, everything will be fine.

Within about 10 minutes of meeting Howard, though, we’re quite sure that everything isn’t going to be fine. Howard is the sort of person for whom “fine” was never in the cards. The movies have had their share of gambling addicts and all-around fuck-ups, but they’ve never given us someone quite like Howard — and certainly not at the center of a film. A Howard-type character is usually a supporting player, the one who causes problems for the protagonist, who has to constantly bail his buddy out. (In most movies, the disreputable Howard character allows us to understand, by comparison, how great our main character is.) But the Safdies, who previously delivered the wonderfully grungy crime drama Good Time, put Howard in the spotlight and don’t let him leave. (Not that Howard would ever shy away from being the center of attention.) Howard starts out as a schmuck, and he never gets better from there. He doesn’t change, he doesn’t grow — he’ll only be happy when he strikes it rich, which his compulsion ensures will never happen.

There’s a certain kind of “unlikable” film character that we’ve gotten used to — think Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood — who’s a towering, intensely compelling sonuvabitch whose ruthless ambition and unscrupulous behavior makes him both deplorable and fascinating. Howard isn’t a towering figure as much as he’s two-faced and pathetic — he’s an antihero who keeps making mistakes and orchestrating his own woes.

When Howard acquires the opal, he immediately loans it out to Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who, because the movie is set in 2012, is with the Boston Celtics and believes the glorious stone will be a good-luck charm for him on the court. Howard is a fool to give Garnett the opal — he needs to sell it to save himself from an ass-kicking — but he does it anyway because he’s addicted to the high of having big-name athletes come into his shop. And because of that stupidity, Howard spends the rest of Uncut Gems frantically trying to reacquire the stone, which proves to be far more challenging than he might have imagined.

In real life, we’d steer clear of a Howard, but what makes Uncut Gems so sensational is how it bends you to its will — much like how Howard strong-arms and sweet-talks his way through every situation. Even better, the movie gets you to, not exactly care about Howard, but be interested in what’s going to happen to him. Howard is an affront to how people should behave — he’s conniving, loud, monstrously self-absorbed. And yet we watch Uncut Gems transfixed because we want to know if such a human being can actually thrive. 

It helps enormously that Sandler plays him. For those of us who have stubbornly held onto the belief that he can be a great actor — Punch-Drunk Love is now 17 years old — Uncut Gems is a belated validation for our undying devotion. He makes us enjoy Howard’s company in the same way that we, almost despite ourselves, enjoy Sandler in even his worst movies.

In a recent New York Times profile, Jamie Lauren Keiles summed up Sandler’s perverse appeal in garbage comedies, and everything they say could be applied to his performance in Uncut Gems:

“These characters are underdogs, albeit oppressed by their own dumb decisions. They’re channeled from Sandler’s mind into ours through a collection of off-kilter tics — a scrunched-up voice, a hot temper or a weirdly jutted jaw. Somehow, they always remain sympathetic. … He’s got a frat-boy face and a mama’s-boy demeanor. Even at 53, the contrast is endearing.” 

Sandler hides that face and demeanor a little as Howard, wearing big fake teeth, a gross goatee and glasses. He struts across Manhattan in a leather jacket with an attitude like he owns the place. No matter how juvenile Sandler is in his own movies, he always aims to be lovable, but there’s nothing lovable about Howard, who’s too busy wheeling-and-dealing — or, let’s call it what it is, lying — to worry about such niceties. He’s angry and distrustful — he feels like the world’s screwed him over — but the more he big-talks, the clearer it is that he’s out of his depth, and in real danger.

And that’s where the disturbing part comes in. We’re accustomed to guys like Howard meeting a bad end. We’re not accustomed to them being played by movie stars like Adam Sandler, who’s more comfortable portraying inoffensive buffoons for whom no real harm will come. With its anxiety-inducing electronic score, roving camera and perpetual forward motion, Uncut Gems keeps hinting that it’s a certainty that Howard is heading toward destruction. Unfortunately, nobody bothered telling Howard, who’s so confident in his powers of persuasion that he thinks he’s impervious.

No wonder I’ve watched this film twice now with a grinding sense of dread. Uncut Gems is the warped, grown-up, desperate flip side of the immature goofballs Sandler usually plays. Howard has no capacity for introspection or remorse — he pretends he’s not hurting his wife and kids through his philandering — and because he projects bulletproof self-assurance, his unwavering optimism in the face of growing peril starts to feel like a sign of delusion. Trouble comes from everywhere — his mistress is pissed off at him, his brother-in-law is losing patience, his wife wants a divorce and he got discouraging news from his gastroenterologist — and yet he keeps charging full steam ahead, fucking up left and right.

It’s hard to love a character with no self-awareness of his considerable flaws who barrels toward his own destruction. But Sandler’s charm, as ever, makes all the difference. We shouldn’t like Howard, but deep down I sorta did. I got worried for him. And after I finished Uncut Gems for a second time — knowing full well how the whole thing shakes out — I went to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. I was too jittery. I’m used to assuming that the characters in movies can take care of themselves — they’re not like us mere mortals, indecisive and lazy and deeply imperfect. But Howard is a cautionary tale walking around New York, assuming he’s too tough to die and too slick to be stopped. You can’t help a guy like Howard — and you definitely don’t want him in your life. Yet after Uncut Gems, I fear I’m going to have a hard time separating him from mine.

Here are three other takeaways from Uncut Gems

#1. Do Jews have a higher rate of colon cancer?

At the start of Uncut Gems, Howard is getting a colonoscopy, which he does because his father died of colon cancer. Later in the film, he mentions to his doctor, “Jews and colon cancer: What is that? I thought we were the chosen people.” But how true is that link? I decided to do some digging.

In 1997, biologists announced that they’d discovered a genetic mutation that made people more susceptible to colon cancer — and that it was more common in Jews. New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade wrote:

“The genetic change, or mutation, occurs in as many as 6 percent of people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, according to preliminary studies, making it the most common known cancer gene in a particular population. The mutation has not yet been found among non-Ashkenazis.

“Biologists at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore, where the mutation was found, have also developed a test to detect it. The center is recommending that anyone of Ashkenazi descent with a close relative who has had colon cancer should take the test, because people with a family history of the disease are at higher risk of developing it themselves.”

Why this specific mutation in that certain population? Just bad luck, suggested Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, who told Wade, “There is no perfect genetic specimen. We are all flawed, we all carry 5 to 50 serious genetic misspellings. That one has now been identified in Ashkenazis doesn’t change the bottom line that we are all walking around with things that are probably a lot worse than this.” 

So, yes, Howard did know what he was talking about. It’s one of the few times in Uncut Gems that he does.

#2. Let’s remember 2012, when the Weeknd was still cool.

Because Uncut Gems is set seven years ago, the movie exists in a not-too-distant past where the Weeknd was not yet a superstar. The man born Abel Tesfaye enters the story in the oddest of ways — Howard and some of the movie’s other characters go to a club where he’ll be performing — and he ends up getting into a fistfight with Howard.

Turns out the Weeknd is buddies with the Safdies, with Josh telling Variety, “[H]e’s a real cinephile. … Like, one of his favorite filmmakers is [David] Cronenberg, and that makes sense, because he’s from Toronto. But he watches a lot of movies.” For Uncut Gems, the Safdies had him perform a song that was out at the time, “The Morning,” from his excellent 2011 mixtape House of Balloons. (The filmmakers even had Tesfaye remake his hair to reflect how he wore it during the era.) 

Watching the Weekend in Uncut Gems was a nice little trip down memory lane. He’s had big hits since going mainstream — “The Hills,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” “I Feel It Coming” — but the studio polish of his recent work hasn’t been nearly as rewarding as his grittier, darker and, frankly, sexier stuff from his early mixtapes. I preferred the Weekend of the Uncut Gems age, although I’m sure he’s much happier where he is now, which is far more successful and famous. But if you miss that period — or if you just missed it — you can experience the old mixtapes on the official release, Trilogy, which was put out in 2012. The hooks aren’t as bright. But the funk and moodiness are seductive.

#3. Here’s the compulsive-gambling movie you should watch next.

Robert Altman made many illustrious films in his career: MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts. But diehard Altman fans tend to geek out about his lesser-loved films precisely because they’re not considered classics — they’re a little more special because you don’t have to share them with the rest of the cinefiles. One of mine is California Split, and in the press notes to Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers mention that it was an influence on their film. This shouldn’t be a surprise — they’ve talked about being big California Split fans before — but now that I know this about Uncut Gems, it makes total sense.

For those unfamiliar, California Split, which came out in 1974, is a terrific, laidback buddy comedy about two inveterate gamblers. Bill Denny (George Segal) is a writer who befriends Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould), a smooth-talker who spends his days at the track and whatever poker game he can find. They’re both addicts, and they forge an immediate kinship. They also enable each other’s worst qualities as gamblers.

There’s not much in the way of story in California Split — the guys hang out, crack each other up and go out and gamble again — but it’s a great hangout film. You basically want to be these men, even if their lives are going nowhere. And then, really slowly, something sad begins to emerge — a sense that these good times can’t last.

Howard would have probably related to Bill and Charlie, although his gambling fix is far more destructive than even theirs. And the stakes are far greater in Uncut Gems than California Split. But what the two films share is a naturalistic look at their very distinctive milieus — and an understanding that compulsive gamblers simply cannot stop themselves from gambling. California Split doesn’t get the same amount of love as other Altman masterpieces. But it’s one of the 1970s’ coolest movies — not to mention one of its most melancholy about male friendship.