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On Marc Maron’s podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Eddie Murphy talked about his recent career and why he wants to get back into acting. It’s a fascinating interview for a number of reasons, but what will stick with me the most is his frustration at being named the “worst actor ever” by the Razzies. Officially the Golden Raspberry Awards, the Razzies are a loose group of people who award negative versions of the Oscars for things like worst acting or worst directing. I can’t find the specific version Murphy is talking about, but he was named worst actor of the decade once, beating out nominees Rob Schneider and Mike Myers.
Typically people do not care about the Razzies, but Murphy mentioned it several times and seemed, at least in some way, to have taken genuine offense at the joke. He said it made him want to make good movies, if for no other reason than for people to remember that he is genuinely funny and can do good work. Who wouldn’t feel the same?
Adam Sandler’s career has been very weird. He has significantly more nominations at the Razzies than Murphy does, just three shy of the record-holder Sylvester Stallone. Sandler seems willing to add to his fake trophy case, as well, as he’s still making trash at a breakneck pace. He’s been in more than 60 films and does not seem to be slowing down, and most of them are so bad you wouldn’t even pretend to imagine seeing them. It just doesn’t matter to him, clearly, and most of the worst of them don’t even make an attempt to seem like a real movie.
That’s what makes it so confounding when he makes something good. There are similar actors in this space, depending on your preferences you may call to mind some of Nick Cage’s weirder stuff or Jim Carey’s inconsistent forays into drama. Sandler was best in either Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People, for my money, and both show that he absolutely could do this, he just doesn’t want to work that hard.
Uncut Gems was sold as Sandler’s best yet and it might be just that. The central role of the film was briefly going to be played by Jonah Hill and it is unimaginable to me to picture that version of Uncut Gems. Both Hill and Sandler have the same nervous energy, but Sandler is unique in that you don’t really want him to win. I kept coming back to that during the frequent terrible challenges that Sandler’s character Howard Ratner faced. Do we actually want him to win, as he so clearly wants for himself at all costs?
Howard Ratner is a jeweler and a gambler. His life is a disaster. Everyone in his professional circle seems to view him as a risk at best and a dunce at worst. His family life is in tatters, with his estranged wife negotiating the date of their separation and his brother-in-law kidnapping and torturing him as part of a larger loan shark deal. There is no aspect of Howard’s life that works and all of it, clearly, was his fault. He prioritized the wrong things and felt like he was always one deal away from making this all come together.
The plot of Uncut Gems is based on the premise that if you just hit once and hit big enough, you can fix everything. But the thing is, as you know from dozens of other movies and from your actual real life, that’s not how it works. Howard is pretty consistently reminded of this, but he misses the lesson and focuses on the problem being that he’s just not hitting big enough.
There are some interesting performances in this, mostly from either non-actors like NBA legend Kevin Garnett (who is great) and sleepy, weird radio host Mike Francesa (who is not). Lakeith Stanfield continues to be great in everything as the broker who finds clients to shop in Howard’s jewelry store, including Garnett as himself. Howard dazzles Garnett with a rare stone from Ethiopia and through several overlapping deals, Howard tries to turn the stone into a fortune.
The thing about movies where someone “does deals” and acts slick to make quick money is that the lesson is almost always “don’t do this,” but the style seems to contribute to people not getting it. The most obvious version is Scarface, but there’s some of that in Uncut Gems. Howard’s life is a mess, top to bottom, but there’s a sense that he’s the smartest person in the room and if he could just get the chips to fall right, he could be in charge of all of this. That’s the surface level, but the Safdie brothers who directed Uncut Gems certainly do not want you to walk away with that feeling. The ending is a powerful exclamation point, but there are reminders all along the way. Every time Howard meets someone famous or important, he messes it up or can’t seem to convince the room of his greatness.
I still prefer Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, but this is a remarkable performance. Sandler never stops talking all the way, giving a kind of run-on-sentence feel to his performance. He’s continuously scheming and trying to be one or two steps ahead on his own chessboard, but he’s not building effective contingency plans for when people see his moves. He’s on three phone lines at once and screaming obscenities at someone in the same room. Based on this not-that-scientific list, Uncut Gems has 560 instances of the f-word, making it one of the most obscene films in history by just that metric. It’s never as distracting as you’d expect, but the general anxiousness that runs underneath Sandler’s performance really, really is. That’s the point, but it’s an exhausting movie.
Roger Ebert said of Sandler’s positive performance in Punch-Drunk Love, “He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?” He was only partially right. Sandler absolutely can and will continue to make some of the worst films available to mass markets, but he also seems to want to do one of these every few years. I think with anyone else, Uncut Gems wouldn’t really work. It needs to be someone you aren’t really rooting for but don’t actively hate. Sandler, especially behind sunglasses and with amped up nervous energy, hits that sweet spot. If he did it more often or more consistently, it might become less interesting when he actually nailed it. It’s an extremely generous reading of his career and his choices, but I’d prefer to think it’s intentional.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Minari feels complete, with every intention examined and every character explored. We spend a ton of time with Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems, but most of the cast doesn’t really feel real. His wife hates him because of who he is, but who is she? His girlfriend makes self-serving decisions, but also is committed to him at the risk of her own life. None of these are fatal flaws, but there’s a lot of Uncut Gems that moves to react to Sandler. It’s not really a criticism of Uncut Gems, but it is something you notice when you compare it to something like Minari.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, I’m still going with In the Mood for Love. I don’t think it’s quite Sandler’s absolute best performance but I do think it’s extraordinary. Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar this year for Joker, a tremendously bad movie that he’s admittedly pretty great in, but Sandler wasn’t even nominated. It’s clearly because of all the garbage he keeps producing and the Academy’s unwillingness to let him put “Oscar-nominated” on the cover of some movie where he plays an animated fart brought to life or whatever, but Sandler’s performance cannot be overstated. There are very few people who could have done this and made it watchable for two hours. That alone is a big accomplishment even if most of the rest of the movie just happens in the background.
You can watch Uncut Gems on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.