Nominated for Nothing: Adam Sandler gave his all in Uncut Gems, but it still wasn't enough
They’re destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our hearts throughout 2019. Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Oscars ceremony, EW is breaking down the year’s best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie wrote and directed this high-intensity crime drama centered around Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a fast-talking jeweler in New York City’s Diamond District who is permanently spinning one plate (or bet) too many. Howard owes money to someone who’s ready to collect, and with that pressure bearing down, his personal and professional lives begin to implode over the course of a few increasingly stressful days. In Howard’s mind, he’s always just one deal, one hustle, one schmooze away from digging himself out of the hole he’s in — whether that’s with his wife (Idina Menzel), his mistress (newcomer Julia Fox), or the none-too-friendly goons on his tail. Potential salvation comes in the form of an Ethiopian opal Howard acquires, but when it appears at his shop at the same moment NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself!) does, it sets off a series of unfortunate events that Howard is both unable to stop and unable to stop himself from making worse.
The movie has a murderer’s row of memorable cameos and cast members — Garnett, the Weeknd, Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, just to name a few — but Uncut Gems is the (sorry, had to do it) gem that it is because of Sandler’s go-for-broke performance, a transformative portrayal many have rightly hailed as his best ever. The Safdies place Howard at the center of a relentless, manic storm, and the film works as well as it does because of Sandler’s ability to subvert the comedic roles we’ve always known him for and make this character both larger-than-life and incredibly human — a guy you root for because of and despite the mess he’s found himself in.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Uncut Gems’ biggest strength may have also been its biggest weakness when it came to Oscar voters: Sandler. He’s turned in lauded performances before in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, but many still associate him with the goofy man-children he’s played in films like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and all those Netflix originals people apparently keep watching. So, if we were placing bets Howard-style, the odds are likely that these less “cinematic” portions of his resumé gave some Academy members pause when it came time to mark their ballots — one anonymous voter straight-up admitted as much in the New York Post last month, claiming Sandler’s “cheesy Netflix comedies” worked against him. (See also: Jennifer Lopez being denied the Oscar nomination for Hustlers she completely deserved.)
Also, 2019 had a massive slate of Best Actor contenders to choose from, making the category one of the most competitive across this entire awards season (as far as nominations go at least — when it comes to wins, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker seems to have that Oscar all but engraved). There was Adam Driver for Marriage Story, Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, Taron Egerton for Rocketman, Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jonathan Pryce for The Two Popes, Christian Bale for Ford v Ferrari, Eddie Murphy for Dolemite Is My Name, and Sandler for Gems. With only five spots to fill on the Academy ballot, there were inevitably going to be some snubs. Pryce’s nomination was probably the wildcard slot that could have been up for grabs, but with so many other big names vying for it, Sandler unfortunately didn’t stand a chance.
Then there’s the film itself, which is a ride in every sense of the word — constantly running on all cylinders and designed to keep your adrenaline pumping from start to finish. It’s not an easy watch (enjoyable, yes, but certainly not easy) which could have made voters less likely to seek it out or watch a screener. (Similarly, the Safdies’ previous film, Good Time — another chaotic crime drama with an against-type headliner in Robert Pattinson — got critical praise but couldn’t break into the Academy fold.) Relentless action is awards bait when it’s in the WWI trenches like 1917, but this particular flavor of it may have been too gritty, too sports-focused or too New Yorky, too loud and off-kilter for more straight-laced (and Hollywood-based) members of the Academy.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: For starters, if Sandler makes good on his vow to make a movie “so bad on purpose” as a response to this Oscars snub, we’ll have Uncut Gems to thank (or blame). But even if there isn’t another Ridiculous 6 in our future — though he just struck a deal to make more Netflix movies, so who knows — Gems made its mark for being so uniquely memorable. Even if you didn’t love the edge-of-your-seat, perma-stressed feeling of watching Howard’s antics unfold, chances are you still won’t forget that experience anytime soon.
And while the Academy declined to recognize Gems’ merits, there’s still plenty to celebrate: The film set a box-office record for distributor A24 when it opened in theaters last December and to date has grossed more than $48 million domestically, a performance all the more impressive because of how polarizing the film is. Like a gilded Furby on a gold chain, it’s something that just had to be seen. As further evidence of it’s cinematic staying power, it’s even coming back to theaters this weekend with a post-screening Q&A with Sandler that was apparently filmed by the Safdies without his knowledge. Counter-programming the Oscars with your snubbed movie? Now that’s a real flex.
In short, Academy voters tend to like their gems more polished. But the rest of us will mark Uncut Gems down as a bet that hit big — with the seventh-highest number of F-bombs in a single film, on Sandler giving a career-best performance, on a movie that put its central character and viewers through a wildly unpredictable and insanely entertaining ringer. So even though it came up short as far as the Academy Awards are concerned, we’ll just paraphrase Howard in our response: “We disagree.”