Uncut Gems might be the most sadistic Rube Goldberg machine ever made.
If you thought your anxiety peaked with 2017’s Good Time, be warned; Josh and Benny Safdie are back to destroy your heart rate. The writer-director duo once again shine their blacklight on New York City, this time set in 2012 and focused on a charismatic jeweler and compulsive gambler named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) who gets his hands on a precious black opal from Ethiopia. When NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing a fictionalized version of himself) becomes obsessed with the gem, Howard hatches a complex plan to pay his debts and get rich. Needless to say, the plan quickly unravels, sending Howard on an increasingly frantic chase around the city. It’s a cosmic nightmare trip that eats through its 130-minute runtime like acid. This flawless style and pacing, combined with the film’s fresh character study and social critique, make it crystal clear; the Safdie brothers have done something remarkable with Uncut Gems.
The sound mixing may be the first thing you notice. As we follow Howard’s walk-and-talk to work during the opening credits, non-stop business chatter and Daniel Lopatin’s synth-infused score play tug-of-war with our ears. Immediately, the film feels astonishingly organic, like it plucked sound waves right out of the New York air. People talk over one another and shuffle around. Everything feels improvised. This overwhelming sequence perfectly introduces Howard’s life as an exhausting barrage of shifty deals, shady characters, loud noises, fluorescent lights.
Of course, Howard’s last name is hilariously on-the-nose, brazenly referencing his slippery character as a rat in a maze. (Or, in the Safdies’ case, more like a coked-out game of Mousetrap.) But Sandler and the Safdies keep Howard just out of caricature territory by balancing broad comedic material with raw moments of vulnerability. On paper, he’s despicable… but you can’t help but feel something for the guy when he loses his glasses, or tries to connect with a fed-up teenage daughter who barely removes an earbud to give him the time of day. And Sandler somehow gives him a smile that’s just as endearing as it is slimy. The ingeniousness of his performance is obvious in the film’s first ten minutes, when Howard wields a diamond-encrusted Furby pendant like it’s his greatest pride—an image that’s altogether hysterical, pathetic, and adorable. We end up rooting for him even when we know we shouldn’t.
The rest of the cast is equally essential in balancing the Uncut Gems’ comedic flair with its more naturalistic and human elements; the Safdies’ street scouting tactics have certainly paid off. The real standout here is first-time actress Julia Fox playing Howard’s girlfriend Julia, who gets to do more and more as the film goes on. (I’ll be keeping an eye on her IMDB.) Kevin Garnett is also surprisingly great and gives his fictionalized self some critical depth. The always-enthralling Lakeith Stanfield gets to do his weird-guy thing as the middleman between Kevin and Howard, and Idina Menzel—playing Howard’s wife Dinah—masterfully delivers one of the funniest and most emotionally devastating scenes opposite Sandler. Last but not least are the heavies, who Howard spends much of the film running away from, and whose faces you’re unlikely to forget. Keith Williams Richards and Eric Bogosian carry entire scenes in total silence with just a few haunting glances.
The directors breathe even more life into this film by drawing on their own experiences—of growing up in New York City, of being Jewish, of being the children of divorced parents. They even took inspiration from their father’s stories of working in the diamond district. But they could not have created such a vivid world without the help of Miyako Bellizzi’s costume design. My God, the parade of SHIRTS in this movie! Neon shirts, wrinkled shirts, Gucci shirts, shirts with sweat and blood and price tags on them—the empty flash of Howard’s life.
Ultimately, what I love most about this film is its ability to work on so many levels. On the surface, Uncut Gems is about a beer-bellied guy stumbling around New York City, making a bunch of bad and life-threatening decisions to fix his other bad decisions. But underneath lies a much bigger, much more toxic story about a carelessness with human life. Both Uncut Gems and Good Time center around a white guy on some sort of corrupt business venture (just his way of “getting by”) and leaving irreparable ruin in his wake. In Good Time, Robert Pattinson’s Connie exploits and/or ruins the life of one black person after another while roping his disabled brother into the fallout. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler profits off of the brutal jewel mining industry in Ethiopia. Both characters toe a fine line between manipulation and love with their friends and family and consider any collateral damage to be part of the game. By making us sympathize with Howard, the Safdies force us to consider our own complicity in these exploitative systems.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars
SEE UNCUT GEMS. The Safdie brothers have officially proven themselves auteurs of movies about screwing people over. Now that they’ve rescued both Edward Cullen and Happy Madison from career purgatory, I wonder who’ll be next. Don’t forget, it’s Oscar season—and if you don’t think Sandler’s got a chance for that Best Actor nomination, I’ve gotta say… “I disagree.”