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Why the Safdie Brothers and Adam Sandler deserved Oscar love for 'Uncut Gems'

What The Safdie Brothers and Adam Sandler did with "Uncut Gems" is climb inside your head with a stick of dynamite as their only source of light for two hours.
Credit: A24
Benny (left) and Josh Safdie stand with Adam Sandler while filming Uncut Gems.

I don't think we'll see another movie like "Uncut Gems" for a while.

That's the true sign of a great film. One that won't pass by anytime soon or even in the next few years. A piece of art so original and intoxicating that you are left exhausted and in need of a group hug by the end of it, or at the very least a pitcher of beer and some nachos.

Tonight at the Academy Awards, there won't be a mention of this film, because it wasn't nominated for a single thing. Nothing. 

While 2019 was chock full of gems at the movies, very few of them were cut like the Safdie Brothers' movie. Few of them gave you a heart attack, in the best way, like their film did. 

Sandler was right when he noted during his Best Actor award win speech on Saturday night that it's fitting "Uncut Gems" got recognized at The Independent Spirit Awards, because they are the "best personality" awards show of the Oscars. This movie had a lot of personality and was fiercely independent.

What the Safdie Brothers and Adam Sandler did with "Uncut Gems" is climb inside your head with a stick of dynamite as their only source of light for two hours. It's the opposite of superficial and redundant. And it wasn't an easy task, because you were dealing with a protagonist who slept on the opposite side of nobility for the majority of this movie. He handled his mortality like a guy handling a chipped egg while walking on a sheet of ice.

It wasn't about a pair of good young British men trying to get a message across enemy territory; a pair of cynical yet easy-to-love aging Hollywood souls trying to stay alive in a young man's world; the 18th remixed tape about female empowerment on a often-adapted story; a story about hierarchy and poverty overpowering the rich; a mob hitman looking back at his life and reading the toll to the audience while feeling remorseful. "Uncut Gems" was different.

Sandler's Howard Ratner broke bad as a kid and never looked back. A con man operating in the heart of the jewelry district in New York, Howard betrayed three to four people on a daily basis, the worst of them being his wife (Idina Menzel) and kids. When Kevin Garnett (yes, the real retired NBA star) wants to hold onto an opal in Howard's shop before an auction and offers his NBA Championship ring as collateral, the dealer goes down the street to pawn it in order to settle another score less than an hour later. Howard is the poker player with a deck of cards stuffed up his sleeve at all times.

He treats his assistant (LaKeith Stanfield) like crap and doesn't even take care of the people who work for him in his shop-but decorates his mistress (Julia Fox) in a special high rise apartment on the opposite side of town. He owes his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) a lot of money, constantly dodging his henchmen (Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik). With Howard, it's just one big score waiting to pay off that will set him up for life.

Right when you think that score will pay off and all will be well, something different happens. Something much different and you'll never see it coming. Josh and Benny Safdie, who put Robert Pattinson through the ringer in 2018's "Good Time," aren't here to just make an ordinary film with an anti-hero at the core of the story that slightly resonates. They want to hit harder than that. They want to cinematically choke you out while you experience this film. And let me assure you, "Uncut Gems" is an experience. It's rousing and fast-moving, but not like a John Wick episode or Michael Bay blow-it-all-up actioner. It's a zip train inside a theater.

Here's why I think the movie plays so well and stands alone. The Safdie Brothers cared more about their characters than they did the audience. They didn't care to soften the blow for the movie audience who couldn't handle the bluntness of their finale. The brothers could have just dealt a familiar hand that audiences have seen for years at the end of this high-wire act — but they went the other direction. Far in the other direction. It reminded me of what Kenneth Lonergan did with "Manchester by the Sea," a beautiful yet heart-wrenching drama about guilt and living with your past. The Safdies truly went for it. They gave Howard the full-blooded tale he deserved.

They employed the most unlikely resources to get it done. Sandler wouldn't be most director's choice to play the lead character. He's gone serious on film before, but it was usually with the "washed and ready to eat" tag from his past films attached to it. Here, Sandler leaned into the role of Howard, giving it everything he had. It was inspired, unique, and should be timeless. Just ask Liev Schreiber.

But it wasn't just the lead role. The writer/director team gave Menzel a role that allowed her to stretch and not sing for once. They gave Fox, Richards, and Kominik their first roles. Josh and Benny found the intimidating Richards, who plays Phil, by the subway in New York. They gave Bogasian his best role in years, possibly ever. They didn't employ Garnett as a gimmick, instead serving the former star athlete a full-bodied role to explore his movie possibilities inside of. Judd Hirsch is never a bad idea for a forgiving yet honest father.

With "Uncut Gems," the brothers took chances and as Howard would wish, they paid off. The film was critically acclaimed and managed to make $50 million at the box office. It wasn't a conventional route. As my colleague and friend Mark Reardon said, who else starts a film off with a deeply introspective look at a colonoscopy?

I know I said weeks ago this year wasn't a time to be mad at the Oscar snubs, but I changed my mind. The Oscars should have honored Sandler and the Safdies with some Academy love. They missed the boat on this one.

How do I know this? You won't see another "Uncut Gems" for quite some time.

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