Of the Oscar nominations which seem guaranteed in the run-up to the announcement, the Academy ignored two. Jennifer Lopez in the Best Supporting Actress category for Hustlers and Adam Sandler in the Best Actor category for Uncut Gems. Maybe because they are not “pure” actors – one is a musician turned actor and the other a comedian and so their crafts and their acts are not weighed in the same scale as the rest.
Because once you watch Uncut Gems, which is streaming now on Netflix, you’ll be very surprised, maybe a tad angry, that Sandler didn’t earn a nod for the performance of a lifetime as a compulsive gambling addict who runs a diamond shop in New York’s Diamond District. It’s the kind of performance that you not only not expect from Sandler but the kind that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride and leaves you breathless.
The new Sandler is thanks to the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, who had earlier rebooted Robert Pattinson in Good Time. Here in Uncut Gems, the Safdies again create that world of chaos that has become their signature. How they keep the tension so palpably high right through the 2-hour-15-minute duration is nothing short of a miracle.
Sandler’s Howard Ratner gets holds of an opal from an Ethiopian mine which actually might not be that valuable but basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself from 2012) of the Boston Celtics feels a cosmic connection with the stone, setting off a chain of events that is oh-so nerve-wracking, to put it mildly. Ratner’s life is a mess anyway, being constantly tossed between an angry wife and a cheating girlfriend plus he owes a lot of money to a relative who’s put scary goons after him.
But the man is in no mood to set things right. All he wants is to hit that jackpot by gambling on the basketball game. So whenever he gets hold of some cash – by borrowing or pawning or just by selling fake Rolex watches – he puts it all on the game of the night. And somewhere he too starts believing in Garnett’s connection with that uncut gem.
Sandler’s portrayal of Ratner the Jew has been criticised as antisemitic but this film or the performance is so much more than just being politically correct and catering to stereotypes. He is able to bring about the crazy frenetic mindset and shifty body language that is a trademark of the scheming bosses of the diamond district, where every trade every day can make or break your life.
Does Sandler the funnyman ever peek out from underneath the chaos? He does, in his quips, but when it’s all over, you remember the breakdown scene in the shop, the raging boyfriend in front of the nightclub and the father who wants to tell her daughter he cares. Sandler was terrific in Funny People, memorable in The Meyerowitz Stories but here in Uncut Gems, the actor in him has been chiselled to perfection.
After you watch Joaquin Phoenix win the Best Actor trophy at the Dolby Theatre today, stream Uncut Gems on Netflix and enjoy the Sandler show. There’s truly more to many “jokers” than what meets the eye.