As the lights dimmed back at the Toronto International Film Festival’s premiere of Uncut Gems, one overly excited fan yelled, at the top of his lungs – in a voice that, unintentionally, seemed eerily close to Billy Madison’s; it’s as if Sandler circa 1995 himself time traveled ahead to this night – “Give an Oscar to the Sandman!”
Sandler, for his part, kind of laughed and waved. And the audience had a good chuckle. Because, yes, the idea of Adam Sandler being an Oscar nominee, let alone winner, seems pretty outlandish. Look, I love Punch Drunk Love as much as anyone, but after 17 years of saying, “You know, when Sandler makes an effort like Punch Drunk Love, he can be really good,” is growing a little tired.
But now that I’ve seen Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, yes, I’m on board: Give an Oscar to the Sandman.
There’s something interesting going on with The Sandman. Of course, the notoriously press-shy Sandler himself will never tell us. Maybe it was turning 50. Maybe it was the deal he signed with Netflix that made him (a) an even richer human being and (b) able to take care of all his pals. This current run all kind of started with Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), with Sandler giving a terrific performance and everyone (myself included) making Punch Drunk Love comparisons again. But the comparisons were now skeptical: because before Meyerowitz, and since 2009’s Funny People, sure, Sandler had attempted a couple of serious roles – Men, Women and Children and The Cobbler – but neither had any traction. Noble misfires, if you will. Then, after, Sandler just went back to making comedies. So everyone just kind of assumed Meyerowitz was a one-off and he’d return to making his Netflix comedies with his buddies. (Which, yes, he did with Murder Mystery.)
But then something else happened. Sandler (with the help of his pal Paul Thomas Anderson), released a both hilarious and introspective comedy special, 100% Fresh. (I’m still saying “phone, wallet, keys” every time I leave my apartment.) He then followed that up with his triumphant return to Saturday Night Live (his first time hosting since he was fired in 1995), which gained him rave reviews and an Emmy nomination. And let’s not overlook what a big deal that was for Sandler. When he talks about the end of his SNL tenure, he always seems, still, a little bit betrayed and hurt. It took him 24 years (!!) to come back to host. And then he finally did and he knocked it out of the park. (Maybe Eddie Murphy was watching and decided, “Okay, yes, I should do that, too.”) Sandler is an interesting subject. For all of the outward bravado in his characters, he seems like a pretty sensitive guy who gets his feelings hurt.
And, now, here he is again, receiving accolades for another acting performance – and in my opinion, his finest. Punch Drunk Love is a masterpiece, but Sandler is kind of playing a ja slightly different version of what he did in his comedies. In Uncut Gems, he’s a whole other animal. It’s Sandler unhinged, but not with anger, but instead with fear and paranoia.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a somewhat shady jeweler, who has one of those New York City establishments where you’d need some kind of a tip to even locate it, and then a reference to be let inside. What makes Uncut Gems brilliant is the number of situations that all have to go just right for Howard to get out of about 14 different “jams.” He’ll solve one, then something else falls apart. The whole movie is a spinning plates routine. A person leaves Uncut Jems feeling like a nervous wreck.
When you talk to people close to Sandler (and I did), some of this gets downplayed. The point is brought up that Sandler always likes working with good directors. Even over the past few years, before Baumbach, he worked with Tom McCarthy and Jason Reitman, it’s just the movies themselves didn’t work out. Also, yes, it may seem like Sandler is “going for it” this past year, but the only thing that qualifies as unusual is the standup special – which then, in turn, led to SNL. I’ll concede this to a point, but the fact is Sandler did take a huge risk with 100% Fresh and then he had to swallow a little bit of pride to come back and host SNL. Something I’m not sure he would do even, say, five years ago. Then add all that to his most dynamic acting performance of his career? Again, this is all in the past year.
Each one taken alone, I get it. But all together, I cannot be totally convinced something isn’t going on here. And that “something” (along with a24’s awards campaign), just may land Sandler an Oscar nomination.
So, yes, loud man at the Uncut Gems premiere. I wholeheartedly agree … give an Oscar to the Sandman!
‘Uncut Gems’ premieres in theaters nationwide in December. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.