At one point in Uncut Gems, perhaps the wildest ride premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Adam Sandler’s character Howard fidgets in the back of a cab, watching basketball on his phone. Kevin Garnett scores, and Howard’s face spreads into a shit-eating grin. “Holy shit,” he says. “I’m gonna cum.”
It feels almost comforting to see Sandler, who turned 53 this week, acting a dope onscreen. Dopiness is his bread and butter. “We grew up with him,” the directors of Uncut Gems, devious brother-duo Josh and Benny Safdie, gushed before the film’s premiere, before urging the audience to chant “happy birthday, Sandman!” in unison. Minutes later, as the lights went down, someone in the crowd broke the silence with another shout: “OSCAR FOR THE SANDMAN.”
To date, the Sandman has a grand total of zero Oscars. He’s never been nominated, and has only ever piddlingly entered into the awards conversation at all. What he can boast is nine wins and more than 30 nominations at the Razzies, or anti-Oscars, which are annually awarded to the year’s worst movies and performances. Most of these Razzie “victories” were for Jack and Jill in 2012, and 2014’s Grown Ups 2 was nominated in almost as many categories. Both of these movies were total critical disasters, almost universally designated by critics as noxious heaps of garbage.
All of this is to say that, for Sandler these days, you’ve gotta sift through a dumpster fire filmography for the gems. This is an actor whose career probably should’ve been in the gutter 20 years ago, and yet somehow he’s still kicking—and often earning at least $20 million per movie. So how did the Sandman end up here, on his 53rd birthday, at a serious film festival beside serious auteurs as an audience calls, sort of seriously, for his Oscar?
At its peak in the era of ’90s rom-coms, much of Sandler’s appeal was his boyish, love-starved, underdog charm, the way he could milk sympathy for his mild downtroddenness like a sweetly pathetic puppy. This posturing doesn’t really work for Sandler in middle age, when droopy-cute eventually turns into just plain droopy. His evolution into stultified middle age is even mocked in Sandler’s most recent Netflix trifle Murder Mystery, which ventures to make his progressively saggy jowls and sleep apnea the butt of several limp jokes. When we think of Sandler these days, this Murder Mystery character is most likely the image that appears, given that he’s been kept busy churning out movies to fulfill his production company’s deal with Netflix.
Uncut Gems, I’m thrilled to report, will get you high enough that you forget all that. It falls under a category that really amounts to Sandler’s side gig: the critically acclaimed, auteur-driven films that Sandler will step out of D-grade movie hell to star in every couple of years. The last time this happened was with Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories in 2017, and it was a beautiful thing that year to watch the world remember how groovy and good Sandler can be.
In Uncut Gems this feeling is even more pronounced. The movie is an often oppressively tight character study of Sandler’s Howard, a hustler jeweler and gambling addict who owes a bunch of angry people a bunch of money he doesn’t have. In a goatee, tinted glasses, and diamond earrings, Howard is a bundle of manic energy, yelling, cursing, careening through the streets at a mile a minute. The Safdies pair his frenzy with an equally fraught score and zippy tracking shots that escalate the bipolar mood, painting Howard by turns as an almighty Greek god and pitiful nutty wretch—both of which prove equally intoxicating, and often laugh-out-loud funny, too.
“It’s Sandler’s most enthralling performance since Paul-Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ and perhaps even better suited to his persona.”
It’s Sandler’s most enthralling performance since Paul-Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and perhaps even better suited to his persona. For underneath his bland doofiness, Sandler’s always nurtured a well of nervous energy. PTA understood this, probing the depths of the actor’s outsider guise by imbuing him with an almost-scary hostility. Now the Safdies have gone even further, pushing Sandler’s neurosis to its explosive extreme while hanging onto the thing that made him lovable in the first place: his humor.
When Netflix renewed its four-movie deal with Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, most people groaned. They knew what was coming: the scripts seemingly written overnight, the phoned-in performances, the jokes that feel plucked from a dated sitcom. But the deal only verified what box offices have been proving for years: Most people around the world are still ready to turn out for Sandler, lethargy and saggy jowls included, and Netflix is smart to capitalize on his enduring appeal.
With well-deserved kudos to the Safdies, this year critics can eagerly join that camp. An Oscar for the Sandman, indeed.