Idina Menzel is the Unsung Hero of ‘Uncut Gems’
There’s been a lot of buzz around the Safdie brothers’ latest film, Uncut Gems. Most of it surrounds the star, Adam Sandler, and rightfully so — the actor best known for playing lazy, schlubby manchildren excels in his dramatic role as Howard Ratner, a sleazy, gambling-addicted Jewish diamond district dealer in Manhattan. Sandler’s already getting name-dropped as an Oscar hopeful, and honestly, I see it.
But to me, there was somebody else who truly stole the spotlight.
I watched the film with a horrible stomachache the whole time — and I don’t think it was because of the chicken meatballs I noshed on during the viewing (love you, Alamo Drafthouse). No, it was because this movie is stressful. Like super stressful. Like oh my God, I’m not sure I can keep watching… but actually I need to keep watching… because I absolutely need to know what happens… but OH MY GOD IT’S SO STRESSFUL.
That uneasiness made it all the more noticeable when my stomach unclenched, which happened precisely every time Idina Menzel appeared on screen.
In a sharp turn from her roles as Queen Elsa and Elphaba, Menzel plays Howard’s wife, Dinah. The couple is essentially separated (they plan on officially telling the kids after Passover), with Howard spending most nights at his New York City apartment with his girlfriend, one of the young employees at his store. Dinah is beyond fed up with Howard’s behavior — we first see her repeatedly begging him to go say goodnight to his son, which he delays to catch the basketball game he’s placed a large bet on. Her stern, “Now!” eventually gets the job done, said in the tone of voice that could get anyone to do anything — both powerful and terrifying.
If you’re just looking at minutes on the screen, Menzel’s part is on the smaller side of a supporting role, with much more air time given to Howard’s girlfriend, Julia (played by Julia Fox, a Hollywood newcomer whose performance is also divine), as well as his partners, customers, and collectors — which makes sense, considering the couple is on the outs. She can’t even be spotted on the movie’s official Instagram account. But every time Menzel is on screen, she absolutely steals the scene, and by the time I left the theater, she was the one I couldn’t stop thinking about.
There’s one scene in particular where the Broadway veteran shines. The family has gathered for a Passover seder at Dinah’s parents’ home, where we see all the trappings of a traditional seder: the family taking turns reading from parts of the haggadah; pinky fingers dipping into wine as the plagues are recited; an inappropriate joke about the killing of the firstborn; children searching for the afikomen. At some point after the meal, we see Dinah decked out in a hot pink, puffy-sleeved dress straight out of the ’80s, as she cheerfully exclaims that she can’t believe her bat mitzvah dress still fits. (Who among us hasn’t tried on our bat mitzvah dress when back home for the holidays?)
When Howard sees her in the dress, he approaches her with a dopey look on his face and an equally dopey suggestion that the two try to work things out after all. He pleads with her to look at his face to see his true feelings. After a beat, Dinah bursts into laughter, stopping only long enough to tell him he has the stupidest face she’s ever seen. It’s a funny moment — while intense and suspenseful, the film has moments of great comedic timing — but what follows is perhaps one of the more heart-wrenching conversations we get.
“I think you must be the most annoying man alive,” Dinah tells Howard, still with a gentle smile on her face. She goes on to say that if she had it her way, she’d never see him again. Before Howard has a chance to respond, a gaggle of female relatives gather around and fawn over how good Dinah looks in the dress, and Howard quietly backs away. It could almost make you feel bad for him, if you hadn’t just spent the first half of the film seeing him for all his egregious flaws.
“Idina’s character is the one person who’s not falling for Howard’s shit,” Josh Safdie told Inside Hook. “She’s reacting as any reasonable person would react… She’s where the buck stops.” Menzel echoed this sentiment in an interview with Variety, saying, “I feel like I’m the only one in the movie that’s kind of like the truth serum person for [Howard]. The only time he literally comes home and has a reality check. The only sort of reprieve in that whole crazy ride in the film.”
Perhaps that’s why her character stands out so much in a movie full of liars and cheaters (and The Weeknd), but it’s Menzel’s delivery that turns the long-suffering wife — a trope we’ve certainly seen before — into her own fully fleshed out creation, dishing out cutting truths in a hot pink dress that would make anybody else look utterly ridiculous.
It’s an exciting role for Menzel, who’s been busy these days with squeaky clean roles in the Frozen sequel and holiday revues. To hear the voice from “Let It Go” unrepentantly call her husband a fuck-up is not without its joys — though it’s also not surprising to hear that Menzel is the kind of person who would call Sandler’s kids while on set and sing to them.
So yes, go see Uncut Gems for what might be Adam Sandler’s most masterful role yet, but stay for Idina Menzel chewing him out in an old bat mitzvah dress on Passover.