Uncut Gems, and the Adam Sandler Persona

“That new Adam Sandler movie is an anxiety-induced thrill ride that is undeniably one of the best films of the year, and Sandler deserves an Oscar for his awe-inspiring performance as its scumbag protagonist” is a phrase I never thought I’d say, and see people eagerly agree with me on... ever? Not that Adam Sandler is a bad actor—I personally love watching his antics on Happy Gilmore whenever I need a good laugh, and I’ve heard Punch Drunk Love is amazing—but if you’re a “film critic” who “needs to be taken seriously by your peers and the general public to have a respectable career” and you openly praise his work nowadays, you may find yourself in a bit of a bind. It’s the equivalent of saying you like Twilight, Transformers, or anything else people have collectively decided is “bad,” “lazy,” or the “dredge of Hollywood.” Honestly, the discourse and entire narrative surrounding the man has become exhausting. If Adam Sandler is making movies people still enjoy, it would be more productive to stop dismissing his work and instead try to understand other people’s perspective, no?

Anyway, I’m uncomfortable praising Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems with a haughty asterisk claiming “he’s good when he isn’t being lazy” or “this is an exception to all the awful movies he’s made.” Not that those claims are particularly wrong, but that asterisk is still entrenched in the public perception of Adam Sandler, which has been used to slander the man for... making bad, lazy movies via his production company, and giving his friends employment? Wow, who’s ever heard of that happening in Hollywood before? Bad and lazy movies are being produced to please the lowest common denominator? Oh, the horror! Did everyone just forget about how bad and lazy Velvet Buzzsaw was, or all the awful low-budget-and-effort horror movies Hollywood spits out every year? Oh, and nepotism in my popular film companies? Well I never! Why isn’t everyone more mad about Will Smith’s family, which brought you After Earth and the ear-piercing horror of “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth”? May as well get mad at Daniel Radcliffe too, whose mother worked in casting for many BBC productions. Actually, here’s a fun game: google “Hollywood Nepotism” and continue to be shocked by how many of your favorite stars either had friends or family in the industry before they got started.

My point is, getting mad at Adam Sandler specifically for participating in a broken system is weirdly targeted. Why has he become one of the poster children for “everything that’s wrong with Hollywood” instead of someone else? Is it because he makes particularly bad or offensive movies? That’s a possibility, especially since bad comedies aren’t as forgivable as bad iterations of other genres, but I’m still waiting for him to make a movie that’s as unfunny as The Cat in the Hat or Minions, as shoddily-scripted as A Cure for Wellness, or as offensive and tone-deaf as The Kissing Booth. Is it because he’s annoying? I mean, sure, but what people find annoying is incredibly subjective. People still find his movies entertaining, even his worst ones, so dismissing an entire audience’s perspective because they find what you find annoying funny is really myopic.

“HANNAH!” I now hear you exasperatedly cry. “What in the ever-living fuck does this have to do with Uncut Gems? Just tell me if the movie’s good!” To that, I have a short answer: I already said it’s good, and this has everything to do with Uncut Gems. To elaborate, it’s impossible to watch the movie as an educated moviegoer (heh, website reference) without considering his reputation, because it’s arguably a response to it. Uncut Gems stars Sandler as Howard Ratner, a genuine asshole who runs a jewelry shop in New York City. One day, he obtains a rare uncut opal. What follows is a winding, overwhelming, anxiety-infused plot about refusing to pay off debts in favor of gambling for more money because he’s addicted to the thrill. Go in expecting to be so tense you simply will not be able to tear your eyes away from the screen until you figure out how it all ends. Benny and Josh Safdie, the directors behind Uncut Gems, have made a name for themselves with their claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing filmmaking, utilizing an inordinate amount of uncomfortable close-up shots and accompanying electronic music that gets under your skin.

What truly carries the film, though, is Adam Sandler’s performance. This year, we’ve been graced by so many fantastic male performances—namely Adam Driver and Joaquin Phoenix—but I went into those movies expecting them to be fantastic. I expected Adam Sandler to be good, but the performance was so disgustingly good I can’t believe he didn’t at least get a Golden Globe nomination. I say “disgustingly good” because Howard Ratner, at the end of the day, is a scumbag. He is so self-obsessed and lacking in self-awareness that it’s almost painful to watch him stumble his way through all these problems he’s both created and exacerbated, because his greed and addiction to the thrill of gambling has taken over his entire personality. He can’t think of anything except for his desire for more, something more, this exciting more that will fix his current problems and then some (basically, he’ll have his cake and eat it too), even when that more would obviously make things worse for him. Every time he obtains enough money to pay people off, he uses it in bets to get even more money.

Even so, while the character’s an awful person, Sandler plays it so convincingly, with the right amount of humanity to make Howard identifiable but not sympathetic. He’s shown to be very charismatic with his customers and friends, and has a weird sense of misplaced confidence in all the measures he takes to get more money, to the point that you almost fall into the trap of believing things will work out for him. I mean, who hasn’t gone into an exam believing they knew everything and then failed? Furthermore, other, less gambling-oriented parts of his life are featured in the film (namely, his family and Jewish roots), and he is shown to actually care about them, but they’re mostly subsumed by his gambling addiction. Really, Uncut Gems is a tragedy about how addiction consumes your life, which is a theme the Safdie Brothers have visited in the past (such as in Heaven Knows What), but if we tie it back to the false Sandler persona we were talking about earlier, there are some interesting parallels.

Critics and bitter audience members have attached this greedy, lazy asshole identity to Sandler, and Howard Ratner is that greedy, lazy asshole. But this film, whether intentionally or not, reminds you that there’s still something human within; a gem surrounded by rock that hasn’t cut away. Adam Sandler, if sources are accurate, isn’t anything like that ugly identity. He deeply cares about his family (having control over Happy Madison Productions allows him to adjust his schedule to spend more time with them), he cares about his friends and gives them work when no one else does, and generally seems like an easy-going guy. So, this supposed asshole, like Howard Ratner, is not the real Adam Sander—it’s a constructed persona that surrounds him, and frankly, we should stop reducing people, public figures or not, in this ugly manner. Instead of leaving the gem uncut, maybe get that pickaxe out and mine away.

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