Uncut Gems (United States, 2019)December 13, 2019
In their follow-up to the underrated Good Time, the Safdie Brothers (Benny and Josh) have shown that the some of the most forceful qualities evident in their previous film were more trademarks than one-off experiments. Uncut Gems, although very different from a narrative perspective, is cut from the same cloth. The edgy, claustrophobic approach to filmmaking is there, as is the importance of setting. There’s never a clear sense of where the movie is headed and, when it gets there, it arrives with a bang. Most notably, the Safdies pluck a well-known actor (Robert Pattison in Good Time; Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems) and place him in a role to which he is unaccustomed but which takes advantage of previously hidden strengths.
Uncut Gems transpires against the backdrop of the New York City diamond market. It’s a corrupt, chaotic world that has provided color and content to more than a few motion pictures over the years. Here, the Safdies make it a character, with the streets populated by shysters and con men, and the gemstone dealers often less reputable than the men prowling the byways outside their shops. It’s here that we meet Howard Ratner (Sandler), the film’s volcanic protagonist who, like Vesuvius, appears constantly on the verge of an eruption. A philanderer, compulsive gambler, and all-around crook, Howard is driven by his base impulses to the detriment of everyone around him, including his long-suffering (and soon to be ex) wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), and his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox). He’s deep in debt to his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose thuggish allies are more than happy to apply force when needed. He’s in over his head but thinks if he keeps dancing through the raindrops, he’ll find a rainbow and the pot of gold at the other end. He doesn’t realize that leprechauns don’t really exist.
Howard has in his possession the ultimate McGuffin. It’s a piece of unremarkable rock embedded with multicolored opals. He claims it’s worth millions of dollars and intends to sell it at auction to clear his debts and provide money for more gambling. Basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself), accompanied to Howard’s store by business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), takes an interest in the stone, believing it to have magical powers. He arranges a temporary trade: in return for his Celtics championship ring, he’ll borrow the stone. When it comes time for Howard to reclaim his property, however, Garnett proves to be elusive and the clock is ticking.
Observing Howard go about his daily life is like watching a juggler…but not any juggler. Instead of tossing balls in the air, he does his work with flaming swords and running chainsaws. It’s breathtaking when he’s in a rhythm but even the slightest hiccup can provoke disaster. The Safdies imbue every scene with a restless edginess that mirrors the ADHD behavior of the main character. Howard is defined by his lack of maturity and impulse control; he needs anger management. There’s nothing comfortable about watching him navigate the train wreck of a life but it’s compulsive. Love it or hate it, Uncut Gems is unlikely to provoke apathy.
Sight unseen, Sandler might seem to be an odd choice (to say the least) as the film’s central character. Howard is intended to be charismatic but not funny and Sandler is all-in on this portrayal, allowing the less flattering elements of his on-screen persona – that of an emotionally-stunted, angry man-child – to be channeled in a serious fashion. To be fair, this is not the first time Sandler has attempted a dramatic role – he has done so with some success on several previous occasions including Punch Drunk Love and Funny People – but this is the first time when has done so without the safety net of the movie in question being labeled a “dramatic comedy.” The result is a performance that echoes Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy both in terms of delivery and approach. It validates Sandler as more than a profane comedian who caters to a least common-denominator audience.
As is the case with most uncompromising thrillers that rely more on narrative elements than action scenes, Uncut Gems may not appeal to those who don’t appreciate the slow-burn approach. Terms like “gritty” and “exhausting” apply. Although aspects of the storyline may seem familiar, the overall trajectory retains the capacity to surprise and shock with its bluntness. The Safdies have a preferred aesthetic and mood and remain true to it throughout. For those who appreciate this sort of modern-day neo noir experience, it gleams as hypnotically as the titular totem.
Uncut Gems (United States, 2019)
Cast: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch
Home Release Date: 2020-03-10
Screenplay: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Music: Daniel Lopatin
U.S. Distributor: A24
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