Snubbing Sandler and ‘Uncut Gems’
It’s not even close.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker is otherworldly, and he deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor. But Adam Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems should not be overlooked. Yet it has been by the Oscars, as he didn’t get a nomination, even though he was as good as the other actors nominated not named Phoenix.
His performance in the tension-filled drama, where he stars as a Jewish jeweler, is jaw-dropping because he shows the kind of vulnerability he hasn’t shown since Punch-Drunk Love. In describing that movie, the late critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was “exhilarating to watch because Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor.”
His performance is Uncut Gems is even better. Things aren’t looking so great for his character Howard. His wife hates him, his daughter thinks he’s a joke, his girlfriend is tempted to cheat on him with a singer in a bathroom, and worst of all, he owes money to people who lock him in a trunk and are threatening to kill him.
His solution comes in the form of a gem from Ethiopia that he hopes to sell for a huge sum. There’s a scene where basketball star Kevin Garnett (who plays himself) and friends come to Howard’s jewelry shop, but can’t get the door open. The best scene is where we see tension between the two as Garnett asks Howard how much he paid for the jewel, and the Jewish jeweler explains that he had to do a lot of work to get it, and explains his hustle.
Uncut Gems was on several top 10 lists for 2019, including 8th and 6th best respectively by Leah Greenblatt and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. Nine films got Best Picture nominations, and this film should have been one of them.
1917, for example, is visually stunning, with great action. Two soldiers risk their lives on a daring mission in World War I. The problem? There is absolutely no reason to care whether they live or die. It’s the same problem that Dunkirk suffered from. A film can look wonderful and have well-made scenes, but at the end of the day, we need to be emotionally invested in the characters.
Uncut Gems succeeds because you can’t take your eyes off Sandler. While he is a gifted comedian, he is also gifted in serious roles, because there is a darkness underneath his jovial exterior.
There are some who criticize the film for playing into stereotypes of Jews as money-hungry. That is a lazy critique. There are people of all religions who are money-hungry, and in this case, the character is Jewish. The job of a filmmaker is to create engaging characters, and the task of the actor is to be engaging. Sandler’s performance is perfect. There is also an intriguing Seder scene where the family dips their finger in wine 10 times, as each plague is read, with no explanation of why this is being done. There is an order for everything, and Howard is trying to put his life in order.
Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, along with Ronald Bronstein, have written an unforgettable film that is jarring and surprising.
Why didn’t the Oscars give Sandler more love? Maybe they have something against him. Maybe there’s too much cursing in the movie. Maybe because it’s about sports and gambling. Who knows? There is a great irony that can be found in the fact that Howard is on a search for the recognition he deserves, and here, the Oscars haven’t given Sandler the recognition he deserves for the performance of his life.