He has been widely revered as one of the greatest comedic actors of his generation, but Adam Sandler‘s greatest role delivered very few laughs. His star turn in Uncut Gems looks like it has not only set the former Saturday Night Live regular on a new path of serious acting but also given him a defining role that will rarely be challenged.
A performance that burned with an irreplaceable flame in 2019 was the moment comedy actor Adam Sandler shaved a goatee for the role of Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. Josh and Benny Safdie directed the fantastic crime thriller, narrating the downfall of a jeweller, brilliantly played by Sandler, in his quest for success and financial gain surrounding an Ethiopian gem.
Uncut Gems explores addiction, power, crime and the Jewish identity as thematic concepts, all wrapped up in an unforgettable visual composition that suffocates audiences through fast-paced camerawork and intense dramatic sequences, all against a brilliant examination of New York. The Safdie brothers’ film is a character study focusing on the dangers of misconstruing dissatisfaction as ambition, evident in its magnetic lead figure’s frustrating antics and mindset.
Sandler’s performance as Howard Ratner is nothing short of remarkable, capturing the lust for power and success that drives the character to a state that borders insanity. The actor embodies everything needed to engage the audience, being a psychological coil of tension, drama, comedy and intensity. His dramatic skill elevates the film text, setting the character traits and thematic concepts ablaze to advance the stylistic execution and direction. Uncut Gems is a master in tense narrative construction, with the Safdie brothers using the protagonist as the hook to pull in all the crafted chaos.
To start with, the directors stray from giving the character a grand entrance that establishes power, charisma or anything remotely positive. Instead, the film introduces the character when he is placed in the most vulnerable position possible, comedically making his debut whilst having his rectum inspected at the hospital. However, the following sequence depicting the character’s walk to work contrasts this vulnerable state. Through the dominating presence in his workplace, it takes no time for the audience to align Ratner as a smooth-talking, witty, business-orientated jeweller.
Despite these seemingly positive fast-talking traits and the ability to navigate his business with charm and intelligence, Sandler’s character sours the mood with apparent negligence to his employees and the hardships of those around him, with financial gain being his absolute priority. The way in which he brushes off an employee’s complaints regarding a gang of business partners exercising physical harm against him as a threat showcases this reprehensible character trait.
His business associate offers him a promising lead when he brings in an NBA player, played by the real-life athlete Kevin Garnett, who immediately becomes infatuated with a black opal from Ethiopia, believing it will bring his career good luck. Despite his instinct to say no because of the jewel’s worth, Ratner loans it to the player in exchange for his prized ring, kickstarting the headache of events that spark the narrative with an exhilarating flame.
However, things are now spiralling out of control for Ratner, given that he owes a large sum of money to some dangerous people, stemming from his weakness of gambling addiction, as revealed when his brother-in-law and his mafia handlers ambush him at his daughter’s school play. To make matters worse, Ratner struggles to retrieve the opal, a frustrating matter as he has pawned the ring to obtain cash for a bet. He is angered to discover this bet should have won him $600,000, but his brother-in-law stopped it because Ratner made a bet with the “money he owed him”.
Garnett returns the opal before an auction, offering to purchase it for $175,000, but Howard refuses, believing it is worth much more. Before the long-awaited auction, a critical moment in the plot, our protagonist learns that the opal has been appraised for less than his initial estimate of $1million. He convinces his father-in-law, Gooey, to bid in order to bump the price, but the plan blows up in his face when Garnett fails to top Gooey’s final bid.
This scenario of last-minute schemes focused on bringing Ratner out on top dictates his characterisation and actions, serving as an analytical motif within the film text.
Failing to learn from his countless mistakes, eliminating positive character development and audience sympathy, Ratner is a rhino in the Safdie brothers’ tale, charging aimlessly forward in the pursuit of desperate success. He is a testimony to the statement ‘biting off more than you can chew’, with the contextual landscape of his religious heritage cited as the cause. Within the Jewish identity is the concept of ‘learning through suffering’, which is necessary for the character as he spirals out of control alongside the narrative’s acceleration, eventually losing his business partner and supportive girlfriend.
During a talk with Slate, the Safdie brothers outlined how this Jewish archetype shaped Sandler’s character and how he responds to circumstances and perceptions. “I think that Howard, the character Adam Sandler plays, falls in a long tradition. I think the humour of the film is explicitly Jewish,” Josh Safdie explained: “I think that the concept of being a Knicks fan is explicitly Jewish. This concept of learning through suffering is very Old Testament”. They also address how Jewish portrayals have fallen into an overlay of emphasising these figures as “overachievers” and “overcompensators”, both traits the character expresses with pride, as though they were his “superpower”.
Ratner embodies his Achilles heel of not knowing when to stop in the thrilling and brutal third act. After he learns Garnett still wants to buy the opal, he pays him at KMH with cash but is also tasked with enticing the athlete into helping him to prosper financially by taunting him about the several bets against him. This results in the athlete being inspired to give his next game his all and winning without the gem. Ratner demonstrates a crucial element of his stance in the film when he tells Garnett that betting on promising players is “how he wins”.
Although Ratner could repay his debt to his brother-in-law and liberate himself from the pressures and threats, he has to go a step further by asking his girlfriend to put the cash on a three-way parlay on Garnett having a solid performance. Audience members are screaming at Sandler’s character to back down as they are crumbling under the stress and mental strain his non-stop schemes bring. However, Ratner can’t back down from the challenge of overachieving and outdoing the odds stacked against him, being driven by the idea of gaining more money than he already has despite the obvious route of just saving himself.
However, in the film’s most exhilarating and decisive moment, Ratner finally wins as Garret performs terrifically and wins him the bet. This win is only made sweeter by the added factor that he achieves this in front of his enemy brother-in-law. The character takes the opportunity to flaunt his success in their faces, gleaming about how he’s beaten it all. In a shocking and cruel twist, one of the thugs guns Ratner down mid-celebration, and the protagonist is shot down in the prime of his life. The concluding shot of his bloodied body is juxtaposed with that of his girlfriend, who is none the wiser, jumping on the helicopter with the cash Ratner sacrificed so much for.
Ratner’s demise is both tragic and somewhat expected, with the Safdie’s creating a complex New Yorker who is both frustrating and undeniably loveable. Spectators struggle to overlook his inability to stop when needed, but his charm draws them back. Ratner’s tale is a cautionary one of knowing your limits and acknowledging and treasuring what you already have. Sandler’s performance, which was robbed of an Oscar, drives this message home in all its electricity and rawness. It demonstrates how the curse of dissatisfaction never brings prosperity or peace, no matter the intelligence you employ in exertion.