Adam Sandler is stellar as the troubled jeweller Howard RatnerTwitter/Variety

If I somehow still had any lingering respect for the Oscars, this has been totally snuffed out by the Academy’s decision to overlook Adam Sandler for a best actor nomination, with voters allegedly not considering his brand as a popular comedian ‘Oscar-worthy’. Without wishing to litigate the merits (or lack thereof) of Sandler’s back catalogue, it is undeniable that without his central performance as Howard Ratner, a Jewish New York jeweller trapped in a spiral of his gambling addiction, Uncut Gems would not exist in any recognisable form.

The film, the fifth feature from directors Josh and Benny Safdie, is centred on his acquisition of the titular uncut gem, a ‘lucky’ Ethiopian black opal. Howard attempts to sell it to the basketball player Kevin Garnett in order to pay off his gambling debts. While the premise might sound farcical, the film ultimately plays out as a grand tragedy as the tightening net of debt, addiction, and bad decisions threatens to consume Howard, watching his finances and personal life collapse around him in pursuit of ‘the win’.

Even a character as foolish and callous as Howard deserves our love and sympathy

Howard appears to experience life as a series of borderline unconnected sketches, with little ability to maintain cognitive permanence between events. While in Sandler’s comedies this is a comedic device to keep the jokes flowing, here its effect is overwhelmingly tragic. Both towards his debts and in his relationships with his wife (Idina Menzel) and lover (Julia Fox), Howard persistently makes inadvertently dreadful decisions, even when this goes far beyond what anyone could consider rational. There are various points in the film at which his balance sheet is barely positive, and he’s able to walk away with his lover if he wants to – yet he has an all-consuming addiction.

Sandler’s performance encompasses this mixture of childlike naivety and adolescent posturing, and he harnesses his comedic talents for embodying an outwardly ridiculous character to play the tragic anti-hero Howard. Critics have debated whether Howard is to be viewed empathetically, but I feel the answer is obvious. Even a character as foolish and callous as Howard deserves our love and sympathy, as per the Safdies’ principle of radical humanist filmmaking. It is an inversion of the classic sports movie ‘plucky underdog’ trope; the Safdies here highlight that, in the underbelly of the inspirational against-the-odds story, there can be a deeply tragic narrative of somebody who won’t give up when they really should.

The directors and Sandler share a discussion on setTwitter/MetographNYC

No less significant is the directors’ decision to continue their collaboration with composer Daniel Lopatin for the film’s score. Lopatin is widely credited as being an originator of the ‘vaporwave’ musical movement and aesthetic style in his album Eccojams Vol.1. It’s an expression of tainted nostalgia that is one of the most recognisable aspects of late 2010’s internet culture. His peculiar blend of cool, electronic minimalism, choral chanting, and anxiety-inducing repeated tape loops add an unnerving backdrop to the quieter scenes in the film, and a vicious intensity to the dramatic scenes. This film lacks a UK cinematic release: the effect of some of the glorious soundscapes, generally consisting of three shouted conversations at once on top of the ominous synths, is somewhat dampened without the full force of surround sound. The choices of non-original music for the soundtrack are also inspired, with songs from Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Gigi D’Agostino’s L’amour toujours, and a haunting electronic arrangement of Haydn’s Symphony No.88 in G Major underlining key scenes in a triumphal post-boomer milieu that neatly encapsulates the tragedy of Howard as the prototypical vaporwave character: desperately grasping to reclaim a life that may or may not have ever existed.

The Safdies have transitioned further from being just ‘ones to watch’

In a wonderfully sweet video made with the Criterion Collection DVD label, Josh Safdie casually refers to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as the greatest ever film, and perhaps the Safdies are the true modern heirs to the neo-realist movement. More so than any other director claiming inspiration from De Sica, the Safdies seem to have understood that the lynchpin to realistic human drama is a direct, materialist anxiety. They not only capture the figurative sense of being trapped in a dire situation, but also the feeling that the only way to get out is through risky snap decisions – even as defiance of logical consequence continues to make the situation worse.

Sandler accepts an award for his performance from The Film Independent Spirit Awards 2020Twitter/Variety

Even though Uncut Gems opts for a slightly more elliptical and epic structure than the strict real-time attack of Good Time, the constant onslaught of deals, scams, and creditors is somehow even more oppressive, and at times recalls the vulnerable, apocalyptic tone of Mike Leigh’s Naked. The directors have realised that one doesn’t need to be trapped in the kitchen sink to speak to human fears and vulnerability. Their use of vivid, highly saturated 35mm colour compositions as a narrative tool bestow a vigour that defies the modern fashion for moody slowcore, washed out palettes, and mumbled dialogue.


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Having now made two relatively mainstream independent films with A-list actors and received both critical plaudits and popular success, while maintaining and developing their distinctive style and artistic integrity, it is justified to say that the Safdies have transitioned further from being just ‘ones to watch’. With the majority of their career still ahead of them, one can but hardly wait to see where their profoundly humanist, post-neorealist style, rooted in direct material anxiety, will take them next.

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