The Safdies have pinpointed Sandler’s strengths, resulting in an incredible, Oscar-worthy performance – plus for once the speech would be fun
In a case of life mirroring art, Adam Sandler’s new film about a guy chasing a shiny object has led to Adam Sandler chasing an Oscar. Now, usually when Sandler stretches himself for a movie, that entails, say, playing both Jack and Jill in the 2012 cross-dressing comedy Jack and Jill. But in Uncut Gems, Sandler is a revelation as Howard Ratner, a compulsive gambler who brawls with gangsters, NBA players, and The Weeknd. On the verge of self-destruction, Howard’s major flaw is that he’s optimistic to the point of stupidity – and, hey, so are we about the Sandman’s Oscar prospects.
Make no mistake, Uncut Gems is still an Adam Sandler comedy, just one written and directed by the supremely talented Safdie brothers. And it is funny. When invited to an Abel Tesfaye gig, out-of-touch Howard responds, “What the fuck is a weekend?” But it’s also deeply tragic. In one scene, Howard is sobbing his eyes out, wiping phlegm and blood from his face, contemplating his life trajectory, and then wailing, “Nothing I ever do is going right. I’m so sad. I’m so fucked-up. I really don’t want to look at you or anyone. PLEASE!” You can’t imagine Jack or Jill pulling that off, can you?
All of which is to say that the Safdie brothers, whose filmography includes Heaven Knows What and Good Time, have pinpointed Sandler’s strengths: his intrinsic likeability and annoyingness; his willingness to commit to truly ridiculous bits; the speed at which he can swing from a dumb joke to plumbing the depths of emotional despair. In our soon-to-be-published interview with the directing duo, Benny Safdie told us: “It’s those moments in his comedies where he’s playing it so straight, even though everything’s going so crazy.”
But could Sandler really win an Oscar? A year ago, the notion was as preposterous as the plot of Billy Madison. After all, the last time Sandler was in the awards conversation, it was the eight Razzies he won in 2012 for Jack and Jill (including Worst Actor and Worst Actress). But since Uncut Gems premiered at Telluride, Sandler has pushed the film hard: he’s flown to festivals around the world, worn a suit to countless Q&As, and even did a New York Times profile – the first time he’s agreed to a print interview since 1996. Basically, Sandler wants that Oscar, and here’s why you should want him to have it, too.
SANDLER’S PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE IS BREATHTAKING
The accusation against Sandler is that he sleepwalks through roles. Not so with Uncut Gems. If you saw Robert Pattinson sprinting after a robbery in Good Time or Ronald Bronstein dashing to fetch his kids in Daddy Longlegs, then you know that the Safdies specialise in nail-biting, nerve-wracking action sequences in which the chaotic energy of New York’s streets amps up the unbearable tension
The difference here is that Sandler is in his 50s, and that exhaustion is conveyed whenever he makes a beeline away from someone demanding their money back – when the character pauses to catch his breath, I don’t think that’s acting. As for Howard’s body language, Sandler adopts specific poses and quirks based on weeks of hanging out with jewellers in the Diamond District. According to the Safdies, Sandler mimicked their mannerisms right down to how Howard holds a phone. We should start calling him Sandler Day-Lewis.
“Sandler’s warmth and devotion to the role keeps the viewer engaged and vehemently on his side”
SANDLER MAKES YOU LOVE A CHEATING, OBNOXIOUS SCUMBAG
“You are the most annoying person I have ever met,” Dinah (Idina Menzel) tells Howard. “I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had my way I would never see you again.” Dinah, who’s also Howard’s suffering wife, knows him better than anyone else. The guy is infuriating. He places bets with cash he doesn’t have, he showers more attention on his mistress (Julia Fox) than his family, and, as a hustler with no off-switch, he bellows his lies loudly and incoherently – it’s torturous spending two hours in his company.
Well, it should be, but Sandler’s warmth and devotion to the role keeps the viewer engaged and vehemently on his side. So much so, Howard’s recklessness serves as wish-fulfilment for anyone who’s typed “get rich schemes” into Google or fantasised about gambling their life savings on the horse with the funniest name. With another actor, he might be an antihero; with Sandler, it’s a sports movie where you’re cheering on a gauchely dressed underdog. The Safdies’ plan B and C for Howard were Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonah Hill – it had to be an A-list comedy movie star, and here it’s curtailed for the Sandman’s sentimental superpowers.
IT’S SANDLER’S MOST TRAGIC FILM PERFORMANCE
In Uncut Gems, Sandler swaps his typically infantile manchild shtick for the Safdies’ more poignant manchild shtick. Amidst a midlife crisis, Howard is in denial that he might be out of touch (watch his desperation for a selfie with Keven Garnett) and the character is subsequently in dialogue with Sandler’s earlier roles – without resorting to de-ageing CGI, that is. If the protagonist of Mr Deeds gambled away his fortune and wrecked his marriage to Winona Ryder, how would he cope in the real world? Uncut Gems gives you a clue: Howard urgently needs therapy before it’s too late.
Click may be sad, and so might be the fact that you watched it, but it’s set in a silly, sci-fi world. Uncut Gems, though, is grounded in a visceral New York where many of the extras are real pedestrians oblivious they’re on camera. Every time Howard is pummelled or breaks down in tears, the pain is visceral and believable. Some of the first-time actors even choked Sandler for real.
IT’LL ENCOURAGE WEIRDER FILMS TO BE FINANCED
What’s more surprising and delicious than Oscar buzz for Sandler is the Oscar buzz for Benny and Josh Safdie. The directorial duo are uncompromising auteurs who’ve turned down major franchise opportunities in order to shoot Uncut Gems, and it could hardly be further from Oscar bait – especially considering that the last two Best Actor winners were boring imitations of Freddie Mercury and Winston Churchill.
“Sandler excels as a natural comedian thrust into a series of potential tragedies”
IT WOULD MAKE UP FOR THE BIAS AGAINST COMEDIANS
Look, there are far graver prejudices in the Academy, but dramas receive more attention than comedies. Oscar voters would rather cry (or watch a Wikipedia entry transformed into a film) than laugh, it seems. But as the stilted attempts at humour at the ceremony prove, it’s harder to pull off being silly than being straight, and Uncut Gems is unquestionably a comedy – despite what the Golden Globes thinks.
The humour, as with Marriage Story, allows you to laugh or cry at any moment, and Sandler excels as a natural comedian thrust into a series of potential tragedies. After all, when comedians go fully serious, it’s odd and unnatural. Sandler’s straight-faced turn in Reign Over Me was like watching an unintentional Yorgos Lanthimos film. So when Howard Ratner can be funny as well as heartbreaking, shouldn’t that be rewarded?
IT SHOULDN’T MATTER THAT SANDLER DID TWO GROWN UPS MOVIES
Another way to look at it is that Sandler picks incredible projects, and also some not incredible projects. Besides, if you gaslight yourself, Sandler’s a patient, picky performer who’s only done three movies in his lifetime: Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories and Uncut Gems.
THE CEREMONY WOULD BE WORTH STAYING UP FOR
In the UK, only losers like me watch the Oscars. At 1:30am, you should be asleep, or lying in bed reading about insomnia on your phone. But imagine this: Sandler rocking up in shorts, a basketball caps, and trainers. Sure, he’s wearing a suit for awards events now, but once you’re nominated, they can’t take that away from you. Then, somewhere in the crowd, Rob Schneider yells out, “Youuuu can dooooo it!!!!”
But more seriously, the Academy needs someone like Sandler to inject energy into its increasingly dull ceremony. Last year, a “Popular” Oscar was temporarily mooted in order to boost the dying ratings. If 30 million allegedly watched Murder Mystery within its first three days on Netflix, then a healthy number would tune in for the first Oscar winner to thank Allen Covert in their speech.
IT’D BE FUNNY TO SEE THE LOSERS’ REACTIONS
Adam Driver punches a hole in the wall like Charlie in Marriage Story. Joaquin Phoenix cries hysterically like Joker. Jonathan Pryce looks to the ceiling and – OK, I don’t plan to ever watch The Two Popes, but you get the idea.
“Sandler has experience as a stand-up, as an SNL player, and as someone who doesn’t give a fuck – it’s the one speech I can’t envision in my head”
THE SPEECH WOULD BE AMAZING OR AMAZINGLY TERRIBLE
Oscar speeches are nearly always boring. They’re either delivered by people who are behind the camera for a reason, or they’re by actors who aren’t used to writing their own material. But Sandler has experience as a stand-up, as an SNL player, and as someone who doesn’t give a fuck – it’s the one speech I can’t envision in my head. He could say, “This is such a surprise” and actually mean it. The truth is, these awards are only fun when they’re unexpected, like Olivia Colman for The Favourite. Speaking of which…
THE TROPHY WOULD BE HANDED TO HIM BY OLIVIA COLMAN
It’s tradition that the Best Actress winner announces the following year’s Best Actor. Imagine the awkward hug. Imagine the really hilarious memes that would come out of it. You can’t, because that’s an oxymoron, but it’d still be fun to watch anyway.
IF SANDLER DOESN’T GET A NOMINATION, HE’LL PUNISH US WITH JACK AND JILL 2
When Howard Stern brought up the Oscars, Sandler responded with a threat: “If I don’t get it, I’m going to fucking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay.” And with Netflix, you can run, but you can’t hide from their really annoying, inaccurate algorithm recommendations. Please, for the sake of our homepage, give the Sandman an Oscar.
Watch the trailer for Uncut Gems below.