(2019) Crime Drama (A24) Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Paloma Elesser, Keith Williams Richards, Tommy Kominik, Louis Anthony Arias, Sean Ringgold, Jeremy Sample, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Sahar Bibiyan, Lana Levitin. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
There are certain people who just live for the rush. That high that comes from risk that leads to reward. These are the people who have their bookies on speed dial, who haunt the sports book at casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas.
Howard Ratman (Sandler) is one of those guys. A jeweler in New York City, his picture is what you’ll see on Wikipedia when you look up the word “hustler.” He always has some scheme going, some bullshit story that explains away the absolute crap that he pulls. His long-suffering wife (Menzel) is close to having had it; his mistress (Fox) who also works as a clerk in his store seems to be the only one who sees anything worthwhile in him. His kids certainly don’t. Most of his employees think he’s a jerk and of course the people he owes money to are about ready to drop him out of a window – preferably from a floor in the double digits.
He has some high hopes in a raw opal mined in Ethiopia that he has been trying to import (illegally) that will fetch him over a million in auction. He also has a thing for celebrities, including basketball legend Kevin Garnett – the movie takes place in 2012 when KG was with the Boston Celtics fighting in the playoffs against Philly. Howard wants to sell him some bling; KG has taken a shine to the opal. He borrows it (using his championship rings as collateral) and has a monster game, which Howard bets heavily on. He is juggling chainsaws, trying to move money around to satisfy the bookies who are sending increasingly irritable muscle to collect. Howard, though, is making moves, knowing that every move he makes may be his last.
It is not surprising that Martin Scorsese is one of the producers for this movie; the film has a gritty Mean Streets-kind of feel. The Safdie Brothers, who are best known for Good Time, know how to create characters who are basically unlikable but casting them so perfectly that you end up rooting for them. There is little to commend in Howard but because it is Adam Sandler playing him, you can’t help but hope the guy makes it through even though the odds are against him.
Sandler, who emerged from Saturday Night Live as a movie star with plenty of charisma and charm, has been suffering through a series of truly bad movies over the last years but his performance here cements his reputation as a dramatic actor of depth and talent. He’s got a legitimate shot at the Best Actor Oscar this year and he simply owns the screen from the moment he steps on it – even when it’s his colon that is the subject (don’t ask).
The big issues that keep this from getting a perfect score start with the score; it’s bad. I mean, the kind of bad that would ruin a lesser movie. It’s like Vangelis and Raffi had a love child and the proud parents gave him a toy synthesizer. Also, the Safdies sometimes seem far more concerned with style over substance. They displayed that more in their previous films, but perhaps their association with Scorsese has tempered that tendency. It detracts from the movie when they get into “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” mode.
The last 20 minutes of this movie are incredible, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. The tension that the Safdie brothers have built really pays off and it’s almost impossible to look away from the screen as things come to a head. This is not a movie for the faint of heart; those sorts are liable to get palpitations watching Howard try to survive and win his last bet.
This isn’t an easy movie to love but you might just end up doing it. I find myself thinking more highly of it now than I did when I walked out of the theater. This is the kind of movie that is going to have some pull in the Oscar conversation this year and while it may be a bit of an underdog for some of the bigger awards, it is certainly one of the best movies of the year regardless.
REASONS TO SEE: Possibly Adam Sandler’s finest performance. The lasts 20 minutes are absolutely riveting. A totally unexpected ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most. Annoying. Soundtrack. Ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plentiful of f-bombs, along with a fair amount of violence (some of it startling), some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the exterior of Howard’s Long Island home is the same house used for the exterior of Freddie Mercury’s home in Bohemian Rhapsody.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Owning Mahowny
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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