Uncut Gems: Stone Cold Carats

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems
***  
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Adam Sandler has played straight drama before, but nothing will prepare you for this adrenaline-pumped film that feels like a plunge into a vat of battery acid. It’s a wild ride made all the more disorienting by the presence of Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jittery, jaundiced Manhattan jeweler who is always on the lookout for a quick buck, be it through bad bets or shady business deals. Up to his neck in gambling debt, one step ahead of the bookie’s goons, Howard miraculously finds himself in possession of an opal-embedded rock that, he’s convinced, will enable him to finally pay everyone off. Of course, it’s not that easy.

Nor is it easy to sit through Uncut Gems, a movie that explodes from the gate with reckless abandon, then barrels through its course offering little in the way of surprise or reflection before running into the brick wall we’ve never doubted for a moment stood at the finish line. With no reward at the end, we’re left only to marvel at Sandler’s bravura performance — and that’s not quite enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile. 

Film directors Benny and Josh Safdie are New York brothers with a distinctively New York vision — make that New York circa 1975, when you had to keep your head on a swivel, street hustlers scurried along the littered sidewalks like hopped-up rats, and only an idiot ventured down a dark Manhattan block after hours. 

The brothers’ latest movie is set in present-day New York, but that underbelly vibe throbs through every hyper-energized frame.

Everybody hates Howard, including his wife — heck, including his girlfriend — but like a black hole, he draws everyone in his unfortunate vicinity toward his self-destructive event horizon. Like them, within minutes of making Howard’s acquaintance we want to punch him right in the kisser, but we’re also held in a masochistic kind of thrall. Besides, we want to stick around to see what awful choice he’ll make next. 

Strangely, the role of perpetual loser Howard seems a natural shift for Sandler, who’s made his career playing irresponsible boobs. He doesn’t disappear into the role of Howard so much as channel the anger and cluelessness of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison into a chasm of nervous energy. 

I’d like to see more of this from Sandler, but perhaps in a movie that doesn’t feel like the aftermath of a night ill-spent. 

Dolemite Is My Name: Dynamite

Eddie Murphy and the cast of Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name
****
Rating: R
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Luenelle
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Director: Craig Brewer

Did you forget that Eddie Murphy is a comic genius? I know I did.

The years have dimmed the memory of Murphy’s angry, ingenious Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop; his fast-talking foil to Nick Nolte in 48 Hours; his crazy quilt of characters in Coming to America.

It’s been over a decade since Murphy last starred in a straight-up comedy (and he should never have made that one, the awful Norbit). During that creative drought, he’s muddled through a couple of lame family heart-warmers and voiced that annoying Shrek donkey a kabillion times.

Now comes Dolemite Is My Name, with Murphy in a role he was born to play: A former X-rated standup comic who decides, with no training or experience, he wants to become a movie star.  

Welcome home, Eddie. All is forgiven.

On paper, Dolemite Is My Name is a screen bio of a real guy: Rudy Ray Moore, who, before he became the king of blacksploitation films in the 1970s, released a super-successful series of comedy albums, the contents of which made Redd Foxx sound like Mr. Rogers’ warm-up act.

Seriously, I don’t think we could repeat a single one of Moore’s jokes here. As Moore, Murphy is even more freewheelingly obscene, mind-numbingly scatological, and transcendentally crass than he was in his Eddie Murphy: Raw days. Yet as he traces Moore’s single-minded ambition to succeed — from strip clubs to Hollywood — Murphy exudes the same subversive sweetness that endeared him to Saturday Night Live audiences 40 years ago.

Murphy’s Moore is no scattershot comic. He’s an artist from the start, tape recording homeless black men in Los Angeles alleys and adapting not only their stories, but also their rhyming cadences and their gloriously vulgar word pictures. He places it all in the mouth of a character he creates: an ostentatious, cane-wielding pimp named Dolemite. There are those who say Moore was the father of rap — and Snoop Dogg, in a cameo role, more or less confirms it.

One day in 1974, after suffering through Billy Wilder’s lame remake of The Front Page, Moore has an inspiration: Why not adapt his Dolemite standup character to the big screen? Sure, he’s had no experience acting. Of course he doesn’t know anybody in the movie business. And naturally Dolemite’s unapologetically urban black character could never find an audience west of Chicago or east of Inglewood. Still, those challenges serve only to galvanize Moore’s determination.

In many ways, Dolemite Is My Name owes its cheery effervescence to Frank Oz’s 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Steve Martin stars in that one as a clueless, talentless film director who surrounds himself with a cluster of lovable misfits — including a meek, bespectacled gofer (played by Murphy) whose brother happens to be an egotistical, paranoid action star (also Murphy). Here, Murphy wraps qualities of both those characters into one guy, creating, perhaps, the richest persona he’s ever tackled.

As played by Murphy, Moore the man is emphatically not Dolemite the caricature: The moment he leaves the stage, or the director yells “cut,” Moore drops his loudmouthed mannerisms and reverts to the kind-hearted, deferential sweetheart who endears himself to friends and business partners alike. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, TV’s Empire) has surrounded Murphy with an appealing cast: the serious playwright who gets roped into writing Moore’s schlocky Kung Fu epic (Keegan-Michael Key), the fledgling director whose claim to fame is playing an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby (Wesley Snipes), the plus-size actress who can’t believe she’s landed a major role in any kind of movie (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have made a career of celebrating the outcasts of American culture (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon), and here, once again, they find in Moore that unique brand of dignity found only in the defiantly undignified.

“Why can’t you be like that nice young Bill Cosby fellow?” Moore’s worried aunt (Luenell) asks. “He’s so polite.”

That’s the story of Rudy Ray Moore in a nutshell: It’s better to be authentic. And that’s a lesson Eddie Murphy seems to have learned, as well.

“Dumbo” An Elephant to Forget

A Trunk Full of Trouble

Dumbo
Two Stars
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
Writer: Ehren Kruger (From the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl)
Director: Tim Burton

            The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbois as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun.

            It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick. 

            First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes.

            Are we having fun yet?

            Of course, things start looking up for Dumbo after he discovers his avionic abilities, but even the spectacularly realized flying sequences come only after the poor elephant faces one peril after another. 

            For a villain, Dumbo can do no better than resort to the most exhausted trope in all of moviedom: The Greedy Businessman. In the person of Michael Keaton, this time the bad guy is an early 20thCentury entertainment mogul who runs a dystopian amusement park called Dreamland. He gets wind of Dumbo’s high-flying talent and promises the moon to the opportunistic circus owner (Danny DeVito, whose character goes not one step beyond the guy he played 40 years ago on Taxi). 

            Thus the action shifts to Dreamland, which is a cross between the Chicago World’s Fair’s White City and Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. The businessman’s big idea is to have his previously biggest attraction, a comely acrobat known as The Queen of the Sky (Eva Green), perch on Dumbo’s back while he flies around the interior of an enormous circus tent. 

            One look at Keaton’s trademark evil smirk and we know what’s afoot: He plans to take Dumbo away from his circus friends and create a “brand” around him. And just in case there’s any doubt about his irredeemable awfulness, Dumbo’s mother is brought back into the story just so he can rip her away from him again — and this time order her murder.

            All of which is to say it’s a long, long road to Dumbo’s happy ending — an ending, by the way, engineered to appease the tut-tutters who object to circuses and trained elephants. 

            Of all the weirdness going on in Dumbo, perhaps nothing is more weird than the nagging feeling that Burton is drawing his veil of darkness not only over a beloved old cartoon, but over his employer, as well. After all, what is Dreamland but a pre-incarnation of Disneyland, and what is Keaton’s character if not the embodiment of the Disney company itself, absorbing every entertainment entity in sight (Lucasfilm, Marvel, 20thCentury Fox, Pixar), shedding the assets it’s not interested in and claiming the hot properties as its own?

            Only occasionally does Dumbo transcend its heavy-lidded attitude, and those moments come largely when the film evokes memories of the original. The scene of Dumbo visiting his mother in her Mad Elephant Cage — which rivals only the death of Bambi’s mother in the Disney Gallery of Uncontrollable Sobs — is gently and tastefully recreated, complete with a lovely rendition of the 1941 Oscar-nominated song “Baby Mine.” And the animated film’s psychedelic centerpiece, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” gets a visual and musical rendition that is wondrously rendered. 

            But I miss Dumbo’s mouse friend Jeremy. And I want to see Mr. Stork delivering those baby animals. I especially miss the original’s much-maligned group of singing crows, who speak and sing with an African American dialect but are voiced by a largely white cast (one of them was named, astonishingly, Jim Crow). This remake was Disney’s one and only chance to redeem that scene by voicing it with an all-Black cast, but as you’d expect the studio took the coward’s way out by eliminating them completely. 

            It’s understandable, of course. Those guys were fun. And for this Dumbo, fun has nothing to do with it.