On Adam Sandler’s 55th birthday, here’s a look at how he tried to reinvent himself through Uncut Gems, a Josh and Benny Safdie directorial, that charts the journey of Howard Ratner, a dogged gambler who also doubles up as a jeweller.
“My name is Adam Sandler,” the actor-cum-comedian was known to have once told a crowd at a Las Vegas convention. “I’m not particularly talented. I’m not particularly good-looking. And yet I’m a multimillionaire.”
In a career full of drab, mindless romantic comedies, Adam Sandler has seldom managed to surprise his fan base. In a career spanning more than three decades, the multiple Razzie awards winner has had one inane comedy after another, promptly banking the hefty cheques that they brought. Films like Pixels (2015), Jack and Jill (2011), Grown Ups (2010) created a specific demography that allowed for audience members to divorce themselves from any sense of merit or meaning. Sandler (bolstered by his production company Happy Madison Productions) never hesitated to belt out these pleasant atrocities to wide masses and blockbuster box-office numbers.
The actor-cum-producer was almost always about the boyish, locker-room jokes that accompanied his snorty laugh and goofy presence. Sandler’s nonchalance even translated to his off-screen persona where the no-airs New Yorker would often be ‘papped’ in oversized, shabby t-shirts and baggy half pants. His films, much like his sartorial choices, were products of his lazy approach to life. Through most of his career, Sandler managed to stick to the same prototype of an embittered and egoistic man-child, who suffers the occasional bout of misplaced anger. But that is not to say that Sandler has never charted challenging territories that require him to actually prove his mettle as an artist. James L Brooks’ Spanglish (2004), Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009) and Noah Baumbach’s drama The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) could be considered his departures from an otherwise annoying normal.
But with the Safdie brothers’ directorial Uncut Gems (2019), Sandler’s intentions of investing in a character to connect with his audience seemed like a redemption from the year that also gave Murder Mystery (featuring Sandler and Jennifer Aniston), a cinematic equivalent of a glorious family holiday vlog nestled in the Mediterranean. Sandler stepped into the evasive shoes of Howard Ratner, a jeweller and hardcore gambler. True to the Safdies’ aesthetic, Ratner’s world was rife with dangerous, grimy encounters with loan sharks and dogged henchmen, who hunt him down and on occasions, unleash brutal violence on him as well. But Howard is undeterred. He keeps a forced smile on his face and continually attempts to bypass life’s challenges by using the smarts.
Howard’s expertise at being the fixer-upper gets the better of him. He believes he has the ability to wiggle past danger just with his cutesy charm and conmanship. Howard’s conscience is always asleep and resigned to his survival instincts. Despite awfully embarrassing humiliation – his assistant (Lakeith Stanfield) launches a public diss-a-thon while his wife (Idina Menzel) strips him of his dignity in private. Hell, even his mistress (Julia Fox), the sole person who claims to love him unconditionally, screams at him in disgust.
Howard’s repulsiveness is what the Safdies play around with, to develop an uncomfortably honest narrative on karmic fate.
The film’s audacious nature ensured Sandler was navigating difficult territory. Most of the filmography that Happy Madison has backed, were a far cry from the reality that the Safdies chose to spotlight for the 70 mm extravaganza.
On the rare occasion that Sandler agreed to sit across from a print journalist for an , The Associated Press took a deep dive into the bond that Benny and Josh Safdie forged with Sandler. Talking about Howard’s contradictory characteristics, the makers said, “We wanted Howard to be lovable. Likeable is another question, but lovable is something real.” Sandler’s worth as an actor shone through this precise tick. Shady deals, loveless relationships, transactional associations, worthless friends – nothing stood in the way of Howard’s self-aggrandisement. Yet, his desperate need to prove himself, (albeit phoney) is twistedly endearing. You almost want to walk across to him and ask him if he is doing fine, pat him on the back and assure him things will fall into place.
It’s unsurprising then that the film evoked audience support and many rooted for Sandler’s possible Oscar nomination. The kind of films that Happy Madison backed, not only created an environment of insensitivity but was often pulled up for their downright problematic content. In 2015, a group of Native American actors infamously barged out of the sets of The Ridiculous Six, citing the script’s blatant racism. The examples of such transgressions included Native female names like “Beaver’s Breath” and “No Bra”, or even including a scene where an Apache woman is shown squatting and urinating, simultaneously smoking a peace pipe. Despite a formal complaint, these Native actors were asked to leave sets if “you guys are so sensitive.”
The film was not only backed by Happy Madison but was also dropping on Netflix. The streaming giant came up with a shoddy justification on how the film’s overt satire was what would ride it through the criticism.
Sandler’s 2014 feature Blended, also starring Drew Barrymore, was a patent of the Happy Madison camp. Bigoted and simply bad, the film was marketed well and managed to rake in close to $50 million. Little Nicky (2000), another tasteless comedy about a man, said to be Satan’s son and an angel who begins a mission to save his father and prevent his demonic siblings from taking over earth. The film was a blockbuster at the theatres and earned close to $61 million.
A series of poor productions followed - Mr. Deeds (2002), The Longest Yard (2005), Anger Management (2003), Click (2006) - but were enjoyed by the moviegoers just the same. Keeping that context in mind, it was imperative that Uncut Gems’ spunk be lauded. The film showcased the importance of delusions and how it forms a protective sheath around those who cannot dare to receive a reality check. Howard’s obsession with the material pleasures in life is well beyond the ordinary. Almost like The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, the Safdies capture him transfixed with the Ethiopian opal stone (that will eventually lead to his inevitable downfall). Probably the only peaceful scene in the otherwise menacingly disruptive narrative, Howard’s worldview is succinctly depicted by this simple scene.
Ultimately, Sandler’s gamble (unlike Howard’s) yielded fantastic results. From critical acclaim to widespread accolades, Uncut Gems was thought to have changed how people viewed Sandler. The film catapulted his performance status to the realm of ‘serious acting’. Much of what Sandler understood of the character was based on the Safdies’ brief and it is no surprise then that what clicked with Sandler was a pointer that Howard was a “dreamer.” Sandler himself aspired to dream for this one, and see how well that paid off.