PLOT A Manhattan jewelry dealer and gambling addict bets everything on a precious stone.
CAST Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett
RATED R (violence, sexuality, language)
PLAYING AT Regal Union Square and AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan and Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. Opens locally Dec. 25.
BOTTOM LINE A vivid crime thriller featuring a fever-pitch performance by Sandler.
The journey is the destination in the Safdie brothers' new crime thriller "Uncut Gems," and there's almost nowhere this film won't take you. The mines of Ethiopia, the suburbs of Long Island, inside a human body, out into space — by the time it's all over you'll feel less like a moviegoer and more like an unmoored spirit wandering through the wide, weird cosmos. And your guide, unlikely as it seems, will be Adam Sandler.
In a ferocious, all-out performance that may put Sandler and Oscar on friendly terms, the comedic actor plays a slick-talking, lovably obnoxious and dangerously dysfunctional man named Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in Manhattan's Diamond District. He has become wealthy selling blingy tchotchkes to rappers and sports figures (his best item is a Michael Jackson crucifix), but it isn't enough. Howard is betting the proverbial farm on something called a black opal — his own Maltese Falcon, smuggled to him in a frozen fish.
The intricacies of plot aren't as important as the parade of characters, played mostly by actors who are either channeling themselves or bucking against type. You'll see a terrific Eric Bogosian as a steely-eyed loan shark, former NBA power forward Kevin Garnett in a major role as himself and first-time actor Keith Williams Richards as a towering thug who seems to represent violence itself. Syosset's Idina Menzel plays Howard's long-suffering wife in Long Island; Oceanside's Wayne Diamond, a former fashion designer, makes his film debut as an unnamed sleazoid; another first-timer, the Manhattan club-kid Julia Fox, shines as Howard's sexually ravenous but unexpectedly tender mistress, also named Julia. And keep an eye out for sportscasting legend Mike Francesa and hip-hop star The Weeknd in small but colorful roles.
With a dreamy electronic score by Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never) and candy-colored cinematography by Darius Khondji, "Uncut Gems" feels both hallucinatory and vividly real. As Howard turns everything in his life into a long-shot bet or a straight-up con, Sandler radiates a heart-pounding desperation and all-consuming despair that —on a dime —can turn into bliss. Only near the film's frenetic, frightening ending do we suspect that Howard's eternal roller-coaster of deep fear and fleeting triumph may actually be happiness. "This is me," Howard says. "This is how I win."
FOUR MORE SANDMAN SURPRISES
Adam Sandler's widely praised dramatic turn in "Uncut Gems" isn't his first. Here are four other times the comedian surprised his critics.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) Barry Egan, a toilet-plunger salesman, may sound like a typical Sandler role, but the actor played him with an intensity and vulnerability that few viewers expected.
SPANGLISH (2004) Critics weren't impressed by this cross-cultural comedy-drama from longtime sitcom producer James L. Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi"), but Sandler earned strong reviews for his performance as a married chef attracted to an undocumented single mother (Paz Vega).
REIGN OVER ME (2007) Mike Binder's post-9/11 drama featured Sandler as a grief-stricken man descending into mental illness and Don Cheadle as a supportive old friend. Despite strong performances, the film petered out at the box-office with $22 million.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017) Dustin Hoffman and Sandler played father and son, respectively, in Noah Baumbach's film about a group of dysfunctional siblings. Variety called Sandler's performance "a glorious thing to watch."