A Sleeper Perhaps but Talent beneath the Camp and Quantity
On December 3rd, the National Board of Review (NBR) announced its award recipients for 2019. The NBR celebrates excellence in the art of filmmaking, and its annual awards stand as testaments to that celebration and a precursor for the Academy Awards in February.
This year the NBR viewed over two hundred movies from blockbusters to indie flicks and they finally came out with their top picks. As a big win for Netflix, the Board gave Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” the honor of Best Picture. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino won Best Director for “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.”
Neither of these wins is necessarily surprising. From a critical perspective, these two cinematic epics were probably the most highly rated films of the year, and their directors are a couple of the most renowned auteurs still working today. Similarly, on the talent side, Academy Award winning actress Renée Zellweger won Best Lead for her role as Judy Garland in “Judy.” Fellow Oscar winning actress Kathy Bates won the Best Supporting Actress title for her performance in “Richard Jewell.” And then, to no one’s shock, three-time Oscar nominee Brad Pitt won Best Supporting Actor for Tarantino’s film.
Again, most of these outcomes were relatively expected. The real shocker on the awards list, however, falls under the Best Actor category, where the NBR deemed Adam Sandler’s role in “Uncut Gems” the greatest leading performance of the year—and this is a year where he was competing with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Joaquin Phoenix, and many other revered stars.
The fact that Adam Sandler is a talented actor is not necessarily a revelation. The fifty-three year old performer has had a very respectable career. In the nineteen-nineties he made headlines as a regular on “Saturday Night Live,” and starred in widely-appreciated comedy films such as “The Waterboy,” “Happy Gilmore,” and “Billy Madison.”
In the past decade or so, however, Sandler has been reimaged as a less-than-stellar leading funny man. With critical monstrosities such as “Grown Ups,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Jack and Jill,” “Pixels” and “The Cobbler” under his belt, Sandler is not as loved as he once was, and his brand of humor is often seen as predictable and patronizing.
“Uncut Gems” is not a comedy in the traditional sense, though. Instead, it is a crime-dramedy indie flick directed by Josh and Benny Safdie of 2017’s “Good Time.” Sandler, likewise, does not play his go-to goofy-dad character, and his performance is more than just an amalgamation of potty jokes and funny voices. While he still portrays a family man in the film, he plays a New York City jeweler deadest on making money through a series of high-risk bets. His actions lead him into a maze of perilous actions as he fends off against real-world enemies while trying to keep his family and finances afloat.
In short, “Uncut Gems” is a neo-noir style dark comedy. It is a long way off from “Big Daddy” and “The Wedding Singer.”
The film also won Best Original Screenplay for its script, which the Safdie brothers wrote with Ronald Bronstein— another person they collaborated with on “Good Time.” “Uncut Gems” also made the NBR’s list for top ten movies after “The Irishman,” falling in with titles such as “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Marriage Story,” “Ford v Ferrari,” and five others features.
Adam Sandler responded to his recognition with jested ambition. On “The Howard Stern Show,” he jokingly threatened to make a new movie worse than anything he’s ever made before if he does not win an Oscar for the film. Clearly, the man has a sense of good-humored self-deprecation. At the same time, though, even he knows that his work in “Uncut Gems” is above standard. The mere fact that Sandler is promoting the film is a telling fact, as the actor/producer rarely does press tours for his own work.
Of all People Adam Sandler as Best Actor at the Oscars?
As unexpected as Sandler’s potential appearance at the 92nd Academy Awards may be, perhaps it is subtly overdue. Despite his more recent body of work, Sandler has a long list of impressive titles to his name. He was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2002 for his performance in “Punch-Drunk Love.” During Sandler’s run on “SNL,” the show was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards and his return to the show as the host this year earned him an Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series nomination. He has voice acting recognition from the Annies and Behind The Voice Awards, a Funniest Actor nom from the American Comedy Awards, and is in the running for Best Actor at the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards.
Maybe an Oscar—or at least a nomination—is not as far off as it might seem for Adam Sandler. Last year Viggo Mortensen won Best Actor from the NBR, and was then nominated for an Oscar months later. Two years before that, Casey Afleck held the NBR title, and he went on to win the Oscar that following February.
This could be a turning point for Sandler, a moment where his career gets a much needed second-wind. It could demonstrate his talent to a wider audience and make him a contender for more serious and mature roles in the future.
The NBR awards ceremony will take place in New York City on January 8th, where Sandler will be honored. “Uncut Gems” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August, screened again at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and received positive reviews throughout. It comes out in limited theaters across the U.S. on December 13th and will have a wider release on Christmas Day.
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