Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Adam Sandler and Safdie Brothers’ ‘Uncut Gems’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Uncut Gems’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When:: Sunday, Jan. 5, 8 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
You could be forgiven if, upon learning Adam Sandler is in a movie called “Uncut Gems,” you assumed it is another byproduct from the crap factory of his Netflix production deal — maybe a buddy comedy with David Spade about a pair of kooky mohels.
Gladly, it’s not.
In “Uncut Gems,” an anarchic and relentless thriller-comedy, Sandler has paired with the inventive brother filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie to make one of the best movies of 2019.
Since its premiere in August at the Telluride Film Festival, “Uncut Gems” has earned widespread acclaim and Oscar buzz for Sandler. In its limited theatrical release since Christmas Day, it also has won record-breaking box office returns for its indie studio, the taste-making A24. It screens Sunday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings at the Wheeler Opera House.
Set in Manhattan’s diamond district in 2012, the film follows Sandler’s Howard Ratner as he evades loan sharks and hunts for his next big score, whether it’s to come from a rare maybe-million-dollar opal or from gambling on the NBA.
“Uncut Gems” is, above all, anxiety-inducing. It keeps its unpredictable tension at a panic-inducing height throughout. You’re going to white-knuckle your way through it. But you’ll also laugh a lot. You’ll be exhausted by it. And, as it nears its conclusion, you will be legitimately shocked at least once.
“The goal was to be in almost every point of view at every moment, even though that’s not possible,” Benny Safdie said during a Q&A following the premiere at Telluride. “That was our goal. We wanted to see it. If someone felt something, we wanted to show that point of view. It becomes a jigsaw puzzle, where you really have to fit it. And then you go with the vibe, close your eyes and the edits disappear.”
The Safdies have honed a rare talent for red-lining a viewer’s heart rate during their films. Sandler, at Telluride, described the jittery experience of watching their previous New York thriller, “Good Time.”
“I watched ‘Good Time’ alone in my office and like five minutes in I was like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are incredible,’” Sandler recalled. “I couldn’t breathe. I had to look away from the screen.”
“Uncut Gems” is appropriately and astonishingly noisy, befitting the hothouse environment of diamond district shops and Ratner’s world. There are constantly, it seems, three conversations going on in the background, creating an anxious white noise behind the storyline we’re following. (That noise comes in addition to Daniel Lopatin’s dreamy score.)
The National Board of Review honored Sandler with its Best Actor prize for his “Uncut Gems” performance. Experts’ predictions suggest Sandler has an outside shot at getting an Oscar nomination (he was overlooked by the Golden Globes).
“Uncut Gems” harnesses Sandler’s gifts as a performer as few films have. His dramatic roles most often have him playing too strongly against type, resulting in soggy sad sack performance like “Men, Women and Children.” This movie takes the mania and the ridiculous fury of Sandler’s great comedic characters — think “Happy Gilmore” — and uses them toward dramatic ends. The result is spellbinding, career-best work that reminds you that nobody can play impotent rage and explosions of frustration like Adam Sandler. Nobody else could so effectively sell a scene he ends up naked in the trunk of a car at his kid’s school concert, nobody else could be so mesmerizing to watch erupt as he follows a basketball game he’s bet on.
Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd both play versions of themselves in 2012 (the Weeknd in his first flash of hipster fame and Garnett at the height of his on-court powers amidst his conference finals playoff run with the Boston Celtics). Non-actors proliferate onscreen here, from unwitting extras in street scenes to New York sports radio legend Mike Francesa playing a bookie.
The supporting cast is rounded out by, well, gem performances by Idina Menzel as a spot-on New York suburban mom, newcomer Julia Fox as Ratner’s co-worker and mistress, Eric Bogosian as a brutal street tough and Lakeith Stanfield as one of Ratner’s shady jewelry partners.
There is depth under the chaotic surface here, too. The Safdies have a gift for depicting racial inequity in unpredictable and subtle ways. In “Good Time,” for instance, a small-time criminal skates by countless brushes with cops as minorities (most notably an adolescent black girl) catch the blame. Here, Sandler’s Ratner caroms from his luxe Manhattan apartment to his outer-borough family home trying to cash in on a rock that was dug from the dirt by Ethiopians who risked life and limb, which we see in the film’s opening moments and which Garnett uses as fuel when he argues he is the stone’s rightful owner.
The Safdies, ages 35 and 33, wrote the first version of their “Uncut Gems” script 10 years ago, inspired by the pulpy stories their father told them about his days as a diamond district runner. That was before the artistic breakthroughs of their “Daddy Longlegs” and “Heaven Knows What” and the near-mainstream hit “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson.
“It was this living document,” Benny Safdie said of the script. “It was this thing that was always there.”
They’d actually sent Sandler the screenplay as early as 2012, though his manager declined to consider this weird project from a pair of unknown twenty-somethings. In the years since, they’d made increasingly effective genre-blending features as well as the basketball documentary “Lenny Cooke” about the phenom who never made the NBA, seemingly preparing themselves to finally bring “Uncut Gems” to life.
This film’s life is likely to extend long beyond Oscar night, as it should go down as one of the great rewatchable gambling movies (like “Rounders”) and in the canon of New York movies (a la “Do the Right Thing”) and a classic Sandler (nobody who has seen “Billy Madison” has seen it just once). “Uncut Gems,” in its own uncomfortable and idiosyncratic way, is a new classic.
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