By John H. Foote
One of the many aspects of my job as a film critic I love is the consistent ability to still be surprised by an actor. Just when you think an artist is doomed to disappoint and fail, or never evolve, they completely shock you with a performance that is without a doubt for the ages. The surge of excitement that explodes through my body makes sitting through all the garbage they have made worth it. It happened with Julia Roberts, who I thought was doomed to studio romantic comedies and films where she flashed that high wattage smile, and then she was Erin Brockovich (2000), winning an Oscar for Best Actress.
For much of his early career I, along with many other film critics, loathed Adam Sandler and his infantile films. Those ridiculous baby talk voices, comedy aimed at the lowest of intellect, he was an embarrassment to the art of comedy, yet incredibly popular and successful in some circles. Critics who cared a lick about film maintained his film were dreadful, and through the nineties his films were constantly populating the ten worst lists compiled annually.
In films such as Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), The Waterboy (1998), and Little Nicky (2002), Sandler cut loose with an array of voices and bombast the dim minded audiences seemed to adore. The comedy was vulgar, appealing to the lowest possible minds, just short of cave man comedy.
Then in 2002, in the hands of the gifted Paul Thomas Anderson, the comedian gave a very fine performance as an angst-ridden young man who finds love in Punch Drunk Love. Critics did an about face and credit was given where credit was due, Sandler was terrific in the film. Now, at the time I remember thinking, let’s not lose our minds, it was a single performance and not Oscar worthy, for it was growth for sure. That said there was nothing Sandler-esque about the role of an awkward young man trying to find himself and love.
The next few films displayed genuine acting talent, and the opinions on Sandler began to change as he evolved as an actor. He was excellent opposite three-time Academy Sward winner Jack Nicholson in Anger Management (2003) and gave a truly beautiful performance as a famous chef coping with troubles at home in the criminally underrated Spanglish (2004). His performance as a husband and father traumatized by their deaths in 9/11 in Reign Over Me (2006) was a haunting piece of acting notable for the silence, the stillness of his work. Devastated by the staggering loss of three little girls who adored him, and his lovely wife, Sandler is superb as a man who has withdrawn from life because being alive hurts too much. He deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance in a Reign Over Me, but the Academy did not share that opinion.
I thought he was very good as George Simmons in Funny People (2009) as a famous movie star who became huge making dumb movies, losing his edge along the way, now trying to get it back through stand up. Angry, unhappy, Simmons alienates everyone in his life, hanging on for dear life.
However, perhaps stung by the rejection of the Academy after his brilliant work in Reign Over Me, knowing he might never be accepted doing serious work, he returned to formula comedies though this time the films were equally as stupid as his early work which appealed to entire families. Dreadful movies and pedestrian performances followed in Grown Ups (2009), Jack and Jill (2011), pure dreck, the hopelessly terrible sequel Grown Ups 2 (2013) and Pixels (2015) another film directed at families trying to turn Sandler into Dean Jones or Robin Williams. Bad movies with terrible performances from everyone involved, frankly films that should never have been made.
And the came Uncut Gems (2019). This ferocious character study from the Safdie brothers was a remarkable work offering the actor the greatest role of his career.
This was Adam Sandler as we had never before experienced, completely inhabiting a character, Howard as never before. He was searing as gambling junkie Howard, a hot shot jewelry whiz in trouble due to his debts. Sandler does not just nail this character; he becomes Howard with every fibre of his soul. Let me make some fair comparisons. This performance was as seething with blind rage as De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), as filled with indignation as Sonny (Al Pacino) in Dog Day afternoon (1975), as deluded as Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) or Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The King of Comedy (1983), respectively, and as addicted to gambling as Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb was to speed in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Sandler in Uncut Gems is downright miraculous, capturing the essence of a man doomed by his, own out of control ways, a human car wreck hurtling toward a death we know must happen to stop him, but which he never sees. An adrenaline junkie, it is one thing to win his bets, always the hope, but the rush he gets from finding the cash, placing the bets, and watching the event for the outcome he desires is all very much a part of his crazy world. All this hellish existence in hopes of a big payday which will enable him to pay off his mounting debts.
Let me state had he given this performance at the beginning of his career, he might not never made some of the garbage he did through the nineties. Uncut Gems is an extraordinary film, teeming with dark energy, rife with anger and Sandler exploding with a performance of volcanic fury. This is a very messed up guy, a man who coaxes his wife not to leave him as he talks to his mistress about their upcoming night together. A man who uses a championship ring loaned to him as collateral and then pawns it for gambling money. Howard is a degenerate gambling addict in way over his head but one who believes he can always talk his way out of trouble.
With frenetic energy, jittery beyond ever being calm again, running on no sleep, Howard is a mess, a complete disaster as a father, a husband, a boy friend and employer. Yet we cannot help but root for him because he is the lesser of the two evils, the men after him are monsters. We feel Howard in every way, through the pores on his skin, this is an astonishing performance, a creation of a man who is constantly wired, hyper, lit from a driving force within.
The National Board of Review were the only major awards group to honour Sandler with a Best Actor awards before the Academy Award nominations were announced. He seemed a shoo-in, but incredibly the nomination never came, he was viciously snubbed. The night before the Oscars were presented, Sandler won the coveted Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor, thrilling not only the actor, but the packed tented auditorium.
But still, like Rodney Dangerfield, no respect.
This time the Academy looked foolish because Sandler’s riveting performance was positively the finest performance by an actor in a leading role I saw last year and most of Hollywood agreed. Sandler joins brilliant work that like his work was snubbed for reasons unknown.
One thing is certain, Sandler has made a startling, complete evolution from comic to actor. And if he never gives another great performance, he can reference his work in Uncut Gems for all of time. Brando great. It is truly that good.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.