The world has come a long way since Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The film released in 2009, a little over ten years ago, and it was received warmly; presumably often with a caveat in critics’ head if not on paper “for an Adam Sandler film”. Now, we have siblings and cousins of Netflix, a hundred different stand-up comedians, talented or not, problematic or not, releasing specials in every prestige medium. The stand-up routines themselves have changed. They are about a lot of things, and some of them have also turned us into melancholic mush in the comfort of our couches. Funny People pre-dates that kind of a special: something that causes an ache while making you laugh, and rolls in observations through cameos of people either famous then or have gone on to become popular in the last decade (for right and wrong reasons) making several references to pop culture, bottling up that struggle to remain relevant, hold on to relationships, fighting that ego and continuing to be successful. 

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) makes a joke during one of his shows about how in your 20s you are indifferent or downright rude (he uses more colourful language, of course) to your parents. In the 30s, you feel the same towards the rest of the world. In the 40s, you just feel…. hungry and wonder what’s in the fridge. Adam Sandler is now 53. He’s probably had several episodes like that since Funny People (there was Grown Ups 2 for crying out loud). Then one day he met Ben and Josh Safdie and decided to give his career best performance in a 2019 film that wasn’t anywhere near the Academy’s pin code — Uncut Gems.

Coincidence or not, Sandler, Apatow, Safdie brothers are all Jewish as is Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner. He owns a jewellery shop in New York City’s Diamond District. George Simmons (Sandler in Funny People) played this alpha male of stand-up comedians, with an apprentice in Seth Rogen’s Ira following him around, but bogged down by his terminal disease and regressing control over his own life. However, Ratner is a beta male pretending to be the alpha in Uncut Gems. Ratner’s marriage is in its deathbed; his children, if they talk to him, talk only about basketball; and he is having an affair with his employee Julia. Basketball and gambling are two of Ratner’s innumerable weaknesses. The delinquent Ratner chances upon a rare opal from Ethiopia that he believes will change his life, not too different a belief from Kevin Garnett (playing himself) who places an inordinate amount of faith in the gem as a drug that powers his game. 

Sandler gets to do a lot of ‘Sandler’ things in this film – he is found naked inside the trunk of a car; he gets kicked out of a club for getting into a fight with the night’s main attraction; he has a love-hate relationship with his whole family. But he also does things we have never seen Sandler do — take unironic punches to his face and jugular vein and retain a vulnerability beneath all the ‘I-am-in-control-of-this-situation’ veneer. It’s also Sandler’s most physical performance in a drama, not in the athletic sense. In a way, he is forced to use not only his face but his whole body, limbs and all. Ratner speaks non-stop but is never still and is always holding something. He fiddles with the opal, his phone, cash, NBA rings, trying to fix the door of a jammed mantrap. Something that neatly complements his life — he is constantly dealing with broken things – his marriage, his shop, his debts, his love life, his children or his gambling. 

In Funny People, Ira, finally tired of George’s pity party, summons the courage to tell him in plain terms – “You are the first person I know who never learned anything from a near death experience. You are backwards. You went worse.” Ratner is another character who never learns from his failings. Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems, as in many films, makes you want to throw things at him but unironically. He too keeps getting worse and never learns. He goes to sleep (if he does at all) with a thousand problems and wakes up with a few hundred more, and renewed confidence that he’ll be down to zero by the end of the day. 

All of this is serviced by now familiar nerve-wracking, sweaty-palms inducing assault on the senses that is Safdie brothers’ filmmaking. Not necessarily a prerequisite but in a rare feat, the brothers manage to achieve a hitherto unsynchronised harmony in their work, the form neatly complementing the material. The film, with its love for basketball, is structured like an NBA playoff deciding game that is going down to the shot clock. Everything in the film leads up to the single game that Ratner has placed a huge bet on. The nervousness, the nail biting nature of it is all mirrored to that of any sports fan experiencing a game that’s up for grabs till the last second. Almost all of Uncut Gems is set in closed off rooms – Ratner’s apartment hallway, his jewellery shop, the mantrap and his office inside. But a high adrenaline drama plays out both in the arena and in these claustrophobic spaces.

“You’ll get better if you get away from yourself”, Ira says to Simmons in Funny People. A line that works for Ratner too. It’s remarkable Sandler has played both these similar yet dissimilar characters, ten years apart and both will likely turnout to be the greatest highlights of his career. Funny People ends with Ira and Simmons reconciling with the state of their lives, the camera pans away from them to a wide shot of the supermarket where people are mulling about, getting on with their dreary, boring day, a snapshot of mundane existence and meaninglessness of life. The last shot of Uncut Gems too zeroes in on something but in the opposite direction. It goes into Ratner, into Adam Sandler, to capture that elusive energy that kept him going, no matter what.

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