Adam Sandler’s Getting Serious Oscar Buzz for ‘Uncut Gems.’ Is He Really a Good Actor?
The comedian is earning raves for his turn as a wacky jeweler in the Safdies’ “Uncut Gems.” But is he really any good at drama? Cassie da Costa breaks down the Sandman’s skills.
Adam Sandler’s best work as an actor has been in comedies: Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and, now, the upcoming Uncut Gems. But it’s not just genre that sets these films apart from the rest of his filmography.
It’s that these films are made by auteurs—Paul Thomas Anderson, Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, and the Safdie brothers, respectively—who are not simply telling stories, but crafting productions that teem with their perspectives, not only with the screenplay and direction, but also editing, music, costuming, casting, and cinematography.
When Sandler is directed by people who not only have a strong sense of what’s funny but have imbued each of their films with a carefully developed vision, his instincts as a performer find a home. He holds both the comedic and depressive, hopeful and defeated, and passive and aggressive in every look, line, and gesture. This kind of elevation-via-auteur isn’t particular to Sandler: There is, for example, Cedric the Entertainer in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed; Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Kristen Wiig in Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Jim Carrey in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show; and Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (which she wrote), and Merchant and Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptations.
Funny people often make do, either way—they can light up a lackluster script or survive on empty direction. And comedians like Eddie Murphy and Carol Burnett have done some of their most brilliant acting in studio films. But comedians tend to have exceptional range as actors because the ability to make people laugh relies on an affinity with darkness. Sandler, like the actors above, has had the fortune to work with directors who charge their films with their own influence, not just professionally but artistically, which forces him to use his own set of skills like an instrument rather than a hammer. Charlie Chaplin—who in directing, scoring, producing, editing and writing most of the films he starred in exerted immense control over his own finely tuned comedic performances—is perhaps the godfather of this kind of acting.
In Uncut Gems, Sandler is at the height of his form. Playing Howard Ratner, a severely-addicted gambler and jewelry store owner with a long-suffering wife (the always-great Idina Menzel) and family in Long Island as well as a young girlfriend/sales assistant Julia (excellent newcomer Julia Fox) who he keeps an apartment for in the city, Sandler sublimates the dark-comedic performance. The Safdies, who usually work with the writer and director Ronald Bronstein on their scripts, have developed a cinema of anxiety that emphasizes the absurdity that often goes hand in hand with impulsivity, and the violence that is typically its consequence. They are conveyors of the New York movie, not interested in its grimiest layers as a form of voyeuristic play but out of a kind of lifer’s reverence. The brothers are born and raised New Yorkers, having shuttled between their divorced parents in Queens and Manhattan—their collective vision is as immediately personal as it is imagined.
Uncut Gems also examines a very Jewish community that shifts between the trappings of the nouveau riche and working class. Howard’s employees, including Julia, are hustling in the diamond district as are the collectors who come for him. But Howard lives in a glitzy Long Island mansion and squanders his money on, apparently, resurfacing his swimming pool instead of paying off debts. Gambling, in its more abstract interpretation as the wagering of funds for dubious investments, is a familiar pastime for many a hustling New Yorker. Whether it’s clothes, cabs, restaurants, or a glorified dorm room apartment in a neighborhood with all the subways, there’s always a way to lose all your money fast in NYC. Howard, for his part, is spending the money he doesn’t have on bets for basketball games.
Sandler crafts a character who is as cloying and infuriating as he is hilarious and electrifying. At every step of the film, you fear for him while somehow being impressed at his increasingly self-destructive gall. Fuck the debt collectors, fuck the frugal—Howard is here for his thrills. At the same time, Howard’s addiction doesn’t only have domestic and personal consequences; the eponymous uncut gem, a rare opal mined by Ethiopian Jews, is swindled. Howard pays much less for it than it’s apparently worth, and an Ethiopian miner is severely injured in the process. Like any addict, any suffering beyond his own never truly concerns Howard. He toggles between interest in his mistress and wife according to his relative fortune, and has his own father (Judd Hirsch who, like pretty much everyone in this film, kills) bet on the opal in an auction to get Kevin Garnett (playing a fictionalized version of himself) to purchase it at a higher price.
In Punch-Drunk Love and Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler plays a kind of inverse of the gambler or hustler. Instead, he is the kind of guy who, traumatized by his own childhood mistreatment, has never managed to take risks when it counts. Both of these films hew more closely to a traditional comedic arc and infuse romance in their contemplations of loneliness. But in each film, Sandler’s brooding is melodic, and he uses not only his schlumpy physicality but vocal register to convey his predicaments. Love and connection are not ways to transcend pain and isolation but give reasons to fight it. Sandler’s performances, as much as the films themselves, speak to both the terror and relief of intimacy.
Uncut Gems stands out because it asks Sandler to dig deep into the darkest corners of human behavior and come out with humor, while still managing to terrify the audience. Funny People, the one auteur film in his filmography that wasn’t very good, failed in part because it demands that Sandler stop short—his humor is taken, as the title would suggest, for granted. Still, playing a somewhat past-his-prime comedian haunted by the legacy of his dumbest blockbuster films, he offers a performance of gradually deafening narcissism that rings true while making you laugh. Sandler’s brilliance is in his very ambivalence; his goofy demeanor depends on a kind of high-flying insecurity, a startling fragility underlying a wacky charm. And auteur filmmakers, masters of coherence when at their best, know what to do with it.