The world has come a long way since Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The film released in 2009, was received warmly; presumably often with a caveat in critics’ head if not on paper “for an Adam Sandler film”.
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. 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, Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems is a beta male pretending to be the alpha. 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.
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 a huge 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 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-thissituation’ veneer. It’s also Sandler’s most physical performance in a drama, in the way, he is forced to use not only his face but his whole body. Ratner speaks nonstop 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 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 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.