The film business is now caught in such a swirling hurricane of change that few pretend to know which way is up. A couple of years ago, Netflix was an interloper; now it’s poised to dominate the Academy Awards. Movies and television increasingly flow into each other, and the streaming revolution is only just starting to wash away old categories.
In the midst of all this brain-boggling evolution, the fact that “Uncut Gems,” a critically acclaimed independent feature by the Safdie brothers, starring Adam Sandler as a sleazy, flyweight hustler-spieler-chiseler-gambler who works in New York’s Diamond District (but spends most of his time hiding out in the chintzy casino of his mind), has succeeded in making $20 million at the box office may not seem like that big a deal. The presence of Sandler, along with a great deal of critical adoration, has put “Uncut Gems” on the radar, where it now occupies a very bright spot. Last week, it collected the best five-day tally ever for A24, the distributor that has made its mark through its singular fusion of taste and edge. That’s great news for A24, the film, and everyone involved in it. But in the grand scheme of things, so what?
Yet lest we take the success of “Uncut Gems” for granted, let’s pause for just a moment to consider what an astonishment it is. Two years ago, when Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” was released, also by A24, and made $49 million at the box office in the midst of gathering up a slew of highly deserved awards, I was pleased as punch but not really surprised. “Lady Bird” was my favorite film of 2017, and it’s on my list of the 10 Best Films of the Decade; it’s a great movie. And in its lithely expressive and true-note way, it always struck me as a highly accessible and commercial movie: a coming-of-age story, and a bold new kind of teenage girl’s story, expressing the outlook of a new-to-movies generation (you might say that Gerwig, in that film, did for millennials what Richard Linklater did for his own on-the-cusp-of-boomers-and-Gen-X era in “Dazed and Confused”). It was heady but heartrending.
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“Uncut Gems,” by contrast, is a drama that offers a pure, undiluted hit of mad-dog momentum and pinwheeling existential ordinary-dude insanity, to the point that even a number of hardcore indie-film buffs say they find the movie a bit too relentless for comfort. The Safdie brothers give you your bearings (just barely), yet they immerse us in a scruffy, charged-up, hyper-drive reality that’s just random enough to make it feel like you’re watching a live-wire documentary about a fictional character. It all builds on techniques that the Safdies, in little-seen critical darlings like “Good Time,” have made their signature — but in “Uncut Gems,” it’s as if they’re kicking the electricity of vintage Scorsese up to the fourth power, creating their own Jewish-mook-from-Lawn-Guyland version of a shaky-cam psychodrama that’s all noise and street-smart jabber and half-baked scams coming apart at the seams. It’s an extreme way to make a movie, and if “Uncut Gems” is a ride, it’s the sort of ride that John Cassavetes would have applauded.
Simply put, this is not the kind of movie that makes $20 million and counting.
No, not even when it stars Adam Sandler, although the Sandler factor has clearly been the key to the film’s success. He’s received the best reviews of his career, and may well be on his way to an Oscar nomination. (I think there’s a small but definite chance that he could win.) Yet have the creators of “Uncut Gems,” like their hustling hero, pulled off a bait-and-switch? Have they, in effect, used the presence of Sandler as a lure to seduce a small army of moviegoers, only to find that the people they convinced to see the movie don’t like it?
You might think so if you looked at the film’s opening-weekend CinemaScore grade. It got a C+, which would seem to put “Uncut Gems” in that rare category of indie-films-at-the-megaplex — like “Drive,” which earned an infamous CinemaScore grade of D — that critics love and audiences hate.
But that, it turns out, is too easy a dismissal. The most telling complaint some have had about “Uncut Gems” — I’ve read it over and over again — is that despite the fact that the film is awesomely well-made, the Sandler character, Howard Ratner, is such a skeevy, selfish two-bit operator that he’s not “sympathetic.” There’s a lot to unpack in that criticism, since it echoes the complaint that consumers of popcorn movies have always leveled at downbeat art films (and that studio executives have frequently hurled at adventurous filmmakers): that they fail to come up with characters who are likable enough. You’d think we’d be past that argument by now, but it seems to have made a roaring comeback with “Uncut Gems.” And to be honest, I’ve been shocked to hear this gripe repeated by people from the independent-film world. You might say that that’s how unsympathetic the Sandler character is — but, in fact, I’d flip it and say that that’s how conventional-minded the mainstream indie world has become. It may now crave “likability” as much as the blockbuster world does.
So is Howard Ratner an unsympathetic character? Actually, he’s quite sympathetic. That’s the beauty, and the resonance, of Sandler’s performance. His Howard is a ratty, stunted loser-geek who cheats the people he loves and pursues, with myopic self-confidence, a path riddled with self-destruction. Yet Sandler draws on his own inner quality of menschy gregariousness to show you that Howard, at heart, isn’t a bad man; he’s just a terribly misguided lost soul. And isn’t that the way that movies — or certain movies, like “Taxi Driver” or “Dog Day Afternoon” — have always worked, holding fatally flawed characters up to the light so that we can see our own sins reflected in them?
Here’s what I think that C+ from CinemaScore means. By now, nearly two million moviegoers have gone to theaters to see “Uncut Gems.” That qualifies this small but audacious high-wire act of a verité thriller as an outrageous success story. On opening weekend, some of those moviegoers were old-school Adam Sandler fans, and some — though not all — of them may have felt ambushed by a movie that seems less like the sort of product Sandler has been making recently at Netflix than like the last half hour of “GoodFellas” on crystal meth. That’s not what they thought they signed on for, so they gave the film a flunking grade.
But I’m sorry, it’s papering over reality with a corrupt studio mentality to say that two million moviegoers have seen “Uncut Gems,” yet it’s a film that “audiences don’t like.” People have seen it not just because Sandler is in it, but because it’s a movie, like “Joker,” that expresses a fractious desperation that’s out there. It’s a new kind of movie, an upper and downer at the same time — a manic roller-coaster of despair. I’ve spoken to people who love “Uncut Gems”; I’ve spoken to people who hate it; I’ve spoken to those who are still sorting it out. But that’s because it’s a virtuoso provocation, one with an ending that may leave you feeling like a hole has been blown right through you. Good time or bad, love it or hate it, it’s an experience, a total night out, a dramatic event, not a tidy piece of product but a true damn movie.
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