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Adam Sandler Makes A Bid For Best Actor Oscar With 'Uncut Gems'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year's Oscar competition for best actor is going to be fierce. Among the possibilities - Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker," Eddie Murphy in "Dolemite Is My Name," Adam Driver in "Marriage Story." Our critic Bob Mondello says it is time to add a surprising, unexpected name to that shortlist - Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Howard's got a shop in New York's diamond district, but he looks like an overgrown juvenile delinquent - leather jacket, shades, ratty goatee - and he's constantly on the run from his wife, from his girlfriend, from creditors trying to collect on his gambling debt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What about this? What's this?

ADAM SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) This is not mine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, laughter).

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) That's not mine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Take the box (ph). Take them.

MONDELLO: As played by Adam Sandler, Howard is always looking for his next big score and always coming up just a little short.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I'm literally minutes away from closing the biggest deal of my life. And when I do, you're going to be embarrassed. And by the way, the watch they took from me - it's worth $20,000. I want that deducted from the hundred grand. You understand?

MONDELLO: In his appointment-only shop, though, customers might not guess that Howard's scrambling; customers like, say, NBA star Kevin Garnett, who plays himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I like the earrings.

KEVIN GARNETT: (As Kevin Garnett) Yeah, you like these?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Those are great.

GARNETT: (As Kevin Garnett) Let's come in and check it out, man (ph).

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) When's the last time you cleaned them?

GARNETT: (As Kevin Garnett) What are you talking about?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Let me clean this for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He can clean them real quick (ph).

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Let me throw them in the...

MONDELLO: Garnett is there when a delivery guy shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Buzz him in. Buzz him in now. Now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Oh, my God. Is this - this is it. This is it. Bring it in. Go to my office. Take it. KG, don't you dare leave, OK? What's in this package is going to blow your mind.

MONDELLO: It's a big fish with a smuggled, uncut opal inside as big as a fist.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) How many carats is this?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) What? 4-, 5,000 carats? That's a million-dollar opal you're holding, straight from the Ethiopian Jewish tribe (ph). I mean, this is old-school.

MONDELLO: It's easy to forget that Adam Sandler is capable not just of acting stupid but of acting. Here, most of what his character does is stupid, but the way he's used by writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie is supremely smart - Sandler's affability harnessed to make plausible a character who, in the space of a few screen minutes, will con pimps, gangsters, pawnbrokers, appraisers, his own cousin, all in the service of placing crazy-big bets using money that's not actually his. And as Howard's schemes inevitably go south, his creditors become bruisingly creative.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

ERIC BOGOSIAN: (As Arno) Howard, where's the money right now?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) It's on the way right now. It's on the way to the casino.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) No, no, no, no. It's in this room right now.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) No, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

MONDELLO: The Safdie brothers are known for combining urban grit and character chaos, and here they make that blend crackle and spark. An amphetamine rush of a story, an agitated camera, a pulse-pounding score - all of it powered by the nuanced, at once off-putting and maddeningly empathetic performance at the film's center. Sandler is scarily effective in uncut gems, and if the Motion Picture Academy has any sense, Oscar is going to come knocking. Of course, with his character's luck, it will probably knock him cold.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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