Risk vs Reward – Uncut Gems

When most people think of Adam Sandler, his work as a dramatic actor isn’t the first thing to come to mind. After all, the long list of comedies to his credit far outweighs the lesser-known and more serious work he’s done over the years. However, under the right circumstances, Sandler has excelled. Uncut Gems is the perfect storm of a unique and ambitious screenplay, bold character writing, and vibrant direction.

Benny (left) and Josh (center) Safdie discussing a scene on location in New York with Adam Sandler (right)

Sandler is getting all the attention for this film, as he should, he was fantastic. It wasn’t the best performance this year but it’s certainly up there near the top and gets him a seat at the table for Best Actor. These kinds of roles make you wonder why Sandler doesn’t take on projects like this more often, especially since his dramatic roles have been met with positivity, but he didn’t do it alone. The Safdie Brothers (Josh and Benny) directed the movie with a frenetic and relentless energy that pummels the senses. They set an incredible pace upfront and don’t ever really ease off the accelerator. If you haven’t seen their 2017 film Good Time that helped audiences reimagine Robert Pattinson, you should check that one out as well. While the audience is kinda white-knuckling it, the directing tandem does a fantastic job easing us into the narrative. You have an idea some kind of underhanded and potentially illegal business dealing is going on but figuring out exactly where the characters fall into place was done with measured precision.

Howard, the main character played by Sandler, is fairly scumbaggy but he’s so ridiculous the humor works in context. There’s an ambition in the character that leads to a number of very poor decisions but his relentless pursuit is captivating nonetheless. Despite giving the audience every reason to dislike him, between the script and Sandler’s comedic pedigree, you still can’t help but cheer for Howard. It’s just a brilliant bit of screenplay writing by the Safdies and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein who surrounded Howard with unsavory characters and awkward situations in order to stack the deck in his favor. Combine that with a very high-risk storyline and we could be talking about Best Original Screenplay perhaps? I’m calling it now, these guys are going to win an Oscar sometime in the not too distant future.

Kevin Garnett (left) LaKeith Stanfield (center) and Sandler negotiating over a precious rock

Those supporting roles were a good platform for strong performances from LaKeith Stanfield and newcomers Keith Williams Richards and Julia Fox. Stanfield has had a really good 2019 with three films under his belt and this role highlights his versatility and range. The consistent quality definitely puts him in the conversation for my Performer of the Year award. 

Julia Fox celebrating some good news

It didn’t look as though Fox was going to have a big part but, as the story began to unfold, she played an integral role not only in the plot but in defining Howard’s motivations. She has a very particular energy that injects itself into all her scenes and, while I don’t know that enough people will see this movie to actually put her name in the public sphere, in a few years from now you’ll be able to look back on this as her breakout role. 

As far as I can tell, this was Richards’ first-ever acting credit but he brought a no-bullshit approach that came across as very authentic and he really helped fuel the intensity of this film. There is a constant push-and-pull at play and he’s always the one doing the pushing. There are also a couple of fun cameos from The Weeknd and Kevin Garnett, both of whom play (maybe not so) exaggerated versions themselves. They didn’t exactly have to be in it but it helped fold in some extra layers fo authenticity that helped the project overall. 

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The Weeknd performing at a party in the film

There is a very distinct vibe right from the beginning. It’s colorful and dreamy with the credits sequences that bookend the film Daniel Lopatin’s original music amplified that feeling. He used a lot of synthesizers and electronic sounds that feel like they’d be from a sci-fi/fantasy epic from the 80s but the unexpected pairing created a very unique audible fingerprint. Lopatin also scored Good Time for the Safdies and didn’t get nearly enough credit for his contributions to that film but it’s clear he’s a composer that’s willing to think outside the box. 

You can go to the movies at any time during the year and enjoy some positive feedback loop of a film that doesn’t challenge you in any way. The box office is flooded with that. Films like this, coming from young and ambitious filmmakers aren’t common but they are the kinds of films that need to get made in order to affect change in the business. This is a great bit of counterprogramming for Christmas and I hope it makes some noise out there over the holiday. 

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood for some good indie cinema, or just couldn’t find tickets to Star Wars and couldn’t stomach the thought of Cats, go check it out. Fans of Sandler’s run-of-the-mill movies probably won’t enjoy this because it’s so far removed from his typical work but it will probably sit better with folks who don’t generally like him. 

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