In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler is superb as a struggling jeweller

Adam Sandler, centre, in Uncut Gems (2019). Picture: Supplied
Adam Sandler, centre, in Uncut Gems (2019). Picture: Supplied

Uncut Gems (MA15+)

Five stars

With only a handful of festival screenings around the world, and a very limited cinema release in the US, this gripping tale of redemption can now be found on Netflix. Adam Sandler demonstrates without question that he has some serious acting abilities. It's well worth watching this on the biggest screen possible with your best audio equipment. It's intense filmmaking that starts slow and messy and accelerates to a mesmerising climax.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jewellery-store owner who is struggling to deal with business and family pressures: problems all of his own doing. A chronic gambler, Ratner has huge debts and owes money to a number of people, including his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). But, as a charismatic schemer who seems to know his way around the city, Ratner has a few deals in place and thinks that one of these will generate the cash needed to pay everyone off. His main hope rests on a rare black opal (the uncut gem) that he's secured illegally from Ethiopia and which he intends to sell for a small fortune.

The Safdie brothers design this as relentless, immersive storytelling, backgrounded by an incessant buzz

His plans get complicated when celebrity basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) visits the shop and decides he must borrow the gem as good luck for that night's game. Bullied by his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) who brings the high-net-worth celebs to the store, Ratner finally agrees, taking a valuable ring from Garnett as collateral. Convinced that Garnett's team - the Boston Celtics - will win, Ratner also places a big bet on the game: one that he can't afford to lose.

On the personal side of life, Ratner's situation is just as badly stitched together. Although he is planning a divorce, he's still living at home with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and two children, but he's paying for an expensive apartment for his mistress (and employee) Julia (Julia Fox), who is devoted and difficult.

Ratner spends his days juggling demands, smoothtalking the devil at the door and wheeling and dealing. Although it's all a desperate strategy to keep everyone happy while waiting for the big pay-off, he relishes the challenge, thriving off the dangerous energy.

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What, Good Time), who co-wrote with Ronald Bronstein, this is one of those rare films that manages both to build a riveting plotline and let us watch a complex, compromised character in action. Yes, Ratner is part rat, cunning and clever, but he's also a rough diamond, driven by a naive optimism that makes him likeable despite the motor-mouth, the bling and the ridiculous promises that you know are only going to make everything worse.

The Safdie brothers design this as relentless, immersive storytelling, backgrounded by an incessant buzz: from the endless jostling noise of the streets and clubs of New York to the vulgar décor of Ratner's love-pad. Supporting Sandler's dazzling performance are excellent turns from Fox and Menzell, playing female characters fully aware of both the charms and dangers of this man. Stanfield also does great work playing Ratner's assistant, slowly revealing the limits of tolerance for those in Ratner's orbit.

If ever there was a film that demonstrated the way members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote, this is it. Despite a swag of critics' awards and near universal praise - in particular for Sandler - the movie didn't receive a single Oscar nomination. Sandler's reputation as a comedian of dubious taste is almost certainly the reason. But set aside any doubts or prejudice you may have about Sandler's talent here: he is riveting and remarkable.

This story Sandler is riveting in gripping gem first appeared on The Canberra Times.