It’s tough to sell a 2019 movie starring Adam Sandler wearing rimless sunglasses and using a funny accent. But Uncut Gems just might’ve pulled it off.
Uncut Gems is the latest from the Safdie Brothers, the filmmakers behind the gritty 2017 critical darling Good Time. Sandler plays a jewelry dealer scrambling to repay gambling debts and it seems to have the same tense and grimey vibe that the Safdie’s brought to Good Time. It doesn’t hit theaters until December, but garnered positive reviews after premiering at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals a few weeks ago, currently boasting a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The high ratings are surprising. Sandler is rarely praised for dramatic roles. Mid ‘90s comedies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore made the Saturday Night Live alumnus a star and still define him today, along with his Netflix movies and the Grown Ups franchise. He’s ventured into drama for decades but it’s a mixed bag. Movies like 2004’s Spanglish and 2014’s Men, Women & Children flopped with audiences and critics alike. Reign Over Me, the 2007 drama where Sandler played a traumatized 9-11 survivor, is probably best remembered today as the subject of intense mockery on the dirtbag left podcast Chapo Trap House. But when he works with strong directors who are personally invested in their movies, Sandler can be an amazing screen presence. Just look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, Judd Apatow’s Funny People and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
Uncut Gems might just be the movie to bring serious Sandler back. He comes off as a real, slightly reckless, well-connected New Yorker. Throwing celebrities like The Weeknd, former NBA star Kevin Garnett and New York sports radio legend Mike Francesa might seem like stunt casting, à la Vanilla Ice in Sandler’s That’s My Boy or Shaquille O’Neal in Grown Ups 2. But Sandler’s interactions with them aren’t played for laughs. Instead, they underscore how much his character is in over his head. Even as he shows Garnett and Lakeith Stanfield a blinged-out Furby, you can hear the pride in Sandler’s voice when he says “I started this shit!”
There are no certainties with Uncut Gems, especially two months out from its wide release date (aside from betting on whatever Francesa describes as “the worst fuckin’ bet I ever heard of”). But we’re long overdue for a chance for Adam Sandler to thrive. And if that doesn’t work, here’s to Grown Ups 3.