You have to hand it to the Safdie Brothers: They start Uncut Gems in Adam Sandler’s ass and never let up the intensity. Their latest crime thriller after the breakout success of the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time is a relentless onslaught of people talking over each other, people in constant motion, people always hustling, doing so much that it becomes too much, all adding up into a certain milieu of New Yorkness that feels simultaneously authentic and performative. The film, which cowriters and codirectors Josh and Benny Safdie have talked about making for a decade, is an overstuffed menagerie of NYC references (shout-out to Smith & Wollensky steaks), nods to Jewish cultural practices, and exponentially irresponsible decisions that would make any money-conscious viewer increasingly horrified. Adam Sandler works well as the guide into this glitteringly manic world, but Uncut Gems often feels like a cacophony of bluster without much emotional payoff.
Sporting fake teeth, wire-rimmed transition lenses, and a baggy black leather jacket, Sandler stars as diamond dealer Howard Ratner, a man who can never get out of his own way. He’s known to nearly everyone in NYC’s Diamond District, mostly because he’s always ducking someone: Estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who wants to finalize their divorce proceedings. Employee Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who is responsible for bringing clients into the store, who keeps asking Howard about the stash of Rolexes he’s entrusted to him, high-dollar items that Demany wants to move on his own. Mistress Julia (Julia Fox, whose ass is now a source of constant meme fascination on Film Twitter), who barely shows up to work at Howie’s store but who lives at an apartment he funds, who sort of talks about building a career as a photographer but who mostly just seems like a party girl. And, most importantly, a couple of enforcers, the burly Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), who muscle their way into the store at the behest of loanshark Arno (Eric Bogosian from Succession, exceptional), whom Howard owes $100,000.
Howard is endlessly pushed and pulled in numerous directions, juggling the demands of his family and his jewelry store and all the people coming out of the shadows demanding money he took from them and didn’t pay back—interrupting his workday and his walk down the street and his daughter’s performance at a school play. But the man is an addict, and an addict is always thinking about his next score, so Howie’s persistent fascination isn’t what he can actually do to make amends. Instead, his obsession is a gigantic hunk of opal that was discovered in Ethiopia’s Welo Mine in 2010 and which Howie finally gets his hands on in 2012—the titular uncut gems that Howie believes are his next big payout. 415 carats at $3,000 a carat, totaling at least $1 million at auction, enough money for Howie to pay his debts and divorce his wife and start a new life with Julia. “That’s history right there,” Howie says of the gem discovered by African Jews in a continent far, far away, but it’s Howie’s future, too.
Uncut Gems is about everything that goes wrong after the opal appears in Howie’s life, though, and the Safdie Brothers layer it on fast and furious—so much so that it often feels like the movie is rushing along without your total involvement in it. The movie’s rhythm is built by Howie’s manic energy, by his desire to always jump forward into a fantasy life and how constantly he is dragged back into the futility of his real world, and to his credit Sandler thoroughly inhabits that persona by balancing the character’s self-absorbed confidence and pathetic petulance. It’s in how the man cajoles doubters who don’t want to accept another sports bet by Howie, who can’t bear to see the man throwing money away again.
It’s in how completely simpatico he is with Julia, who hands over with ease a necklace she stole from pop star The Weeknd so that Howie can pawn it, and yet how ashamed he is when he realizes his children are picking up on the fact that he’s stepping out on his marriage. The jettisoning between the highest of highs and lowest of lows is familiar if you’ve seen any addiction movie, like Mississippi Grind or Requiem for a Dream, but it’s surprising how well Sandler pulls this off, how much hope and desperation he imbues into a character who could have easily been a caricature.
In fact, Uncut Gems is full of surprises that are more fulfilling than the movie’s main narrative. Sam Lisenco’s production design and Darius Khondji’s precise cinematography, which together capture the intimacy of events like Passover dinner and the familial lines of loyalty and resentment within such a space, or the chaotic capitalism of the Diamond District, with its stacked-on-each-other stores, capital-C Characters, labyrinthine hallways, and secret back rooms. Menzel as the put-upon Dinah, leaning fully into “fuck you, pay me” energy by fitting into her poufy neon pink bat mitzvah dress while reading Howie for filth.
Bogosian as the weary, worn-down Arno, whose relationship with Howie takes on different weight about midway through the movie, whose judgmental looks toward Sandler’s character hold greater depth. And Kevin Garnett is an unexpectedly fantastic revelation as, well, himself, playing a version of the Garnett who in 2012 is a leader on the Boston Celtics as they prepare for the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. Enthralled by the opal and the possibility that it provides good luck, Garnett adds additional mysticism to a film that already indulges Howie’s idea of himself (“Aren’t we supposed to be the Chosen People?” Howie asks his also-Jewish gastroenterologist), and the script from the Safdies and regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein builds effective friction between two men who are each convinced of their own singularity.
“You fucked up, and you are a fuckup,” someone says to Howie; “It’s about fucking winning,” Howie later says of his own approach to life; and Uncut Gems examines the wide gap between those two statements, in how people view us vs. how we view ourselves. Does the ending undercut that tension? Sure, especially once you realize toward which characters the film’s sympathies lie. But before that point, Uncut Gems is a fairly entertaining exploration of the glossy allure of wealth, of believing your own myth, and of the corruptive mistakes inherent to both.
Uncut Gems opened in wide release around the U.S. on Dec. 25, 2019.
Header Image Source: A24