Uncut Gems is so many things, all at the same time. On its surface one can appreciate the breakneck pacing and the terrific ramblings of Adam Sandler’s performance; the pulsing score and the breathtaking dynamism of its camerawork. Dig a little deeper and maybe the structure of its script, a collaboration between directors Josh and Benny Safdie and writer Ronald Bronstein, reveals to the viewer a Russian nesting doll of clever plot devices and smart, devastatingly-real characters.
Gaze into the reflections of Uncut Gems a little longer, maybe, and find a movie that indicts our contemporary fixations on “us,” and how we are the centers of the universe. The Safdies’ film layers its cast with people from walks of life high and low, and the fact is that someone always pays for someone else’s happiness, whether in a minor or major way.
Uncut Gems is so many things, and all of them are excellent.
Director: Benny and Josh Safdie
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), or “Howie Bling,” as his Instagram promotes his NYC diamond district business, is a slave to his gambling addiction. Sprint-walking, as all New Yorkers do, from storefront to front across Midtown, Howard picks up winnings from a bet, loses those winnings to loan sharks in a threatening shake-down, and then pawns some jewelry to bank on the Celtics. And it isn’t even breakfast yet.
Howard’s predicament of addiction and being in deep with less-than-savories is so in-your-face from Uncut Gems‘ onset that we don’t even see it. In the Safdie’s hands, Howard’s tunnel-vision and euphoric optimism at winning big guides the emotions of the audience in an incredibly effective and immersive way. So what if he’s cheating on his wife (Idina Menzel), cynically and openly apathetic towards their marriage? Who’s to worry about the morality of his affair with a younger employee (Julia Fox)? All problems wash away, because Howard’s got the stone.
The titular gems of the movie are embodied in a particularly coveted piece Howard acquires early on, after nearly a year of working to lay his hands on the prismatic stone. A “safe bet” for an auction Howard has coming up, a spur-of-the-moment loan of the lucrative rock to 6’11” Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (played by himself) sees Howard’s world spiral into circles of disorder even he might not be able to bounce back from.
All of this is great, but wouldn’t go anywhere if it weren’t for Howie Bling himself. Adam Sandler decides once again to show that, despite tripe like Pixels and The Ridiculous 6 there lies an actor whose comedic sensibilities and image lend themselves remarkably well to drama. We saw it nearly 20 years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and recently in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. But Uncut Gems just might be Sandler’s best performance to date.
The aforementioned tunnel vision of Howard’s addiction is guided by Sandler’s resting-mania, always making moves to dig himself out of a hole, only to toss himself into a fresh one on some gambling-minded whim. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s grainy and saturated work gives at times a “security camera realism” to the action, with handheld takes and rapid zooms sometimes replaced with a steady frame and neat lighting. At times Uncut Gems looks like it could come straight from the legendary Michael Mann, recalling Thief and Collateral in particular. Paired with the undercurrent of Daniel Lopatin’s highly atmospheric, synth score, and you have movie magic.
Something the Safdies do tremendously well is presenting the audience with situations--physical setups or turns in the story--that defy expectation. Their prior 2017 feature Good Time saw Robert Pattinson sweat his way through a day in New York following a failed bank robbery, dashing from one safe house to the next, trying to scrape some survival out of a hopeless situation. Without spoiling anything, Uncut Gems allows for some incredibly clever, unforeseen developments that drop in the blink of an eye, enabled by the whims and fast-pace of Howard’s lifestyle. When our protagonist is moving and thinking at 100 miles-per-hour, the movie follows suit naturally.
It’s also a talent of the Safdies and to their credit that they have a real eye for people. Casting largely from non-actors or bit performers, the Safdies give their films life through the use of strong actors who never for a second feel like cleaned-up Hollywood-types. These are people you’d bump into on the street. The brothers’ use of real celebrities like Garnett in fleshing out their cinematic worlds could feel contrived in the hands of lesser filmmakers, but result instead in making their fictional characters come across as all the more authentic.
And in their eye for casting, the director-brothers also exhibit a deep and perhaps surprising humanism with Uncut Gems. Again, without spoiling any turns, the film’s opening prologue might shock audiences expecting instant submersion in the Manhattan madness Gems promises. “Perspective” is something I think Uncut Gems does terrifically, while not making itself out to be a social justice film; the levels of struggle faced in the film are given their time, reminding us that Howard, gripped by his addiction, is still making these devastatingly-bad decisions. While he walks into holes, there are people in the world who are stuck in them without any say in the matter.
What should make Uncut Gems last in the discussion for years to come is, like the stone that fuels so much of its momentum, the dimensions it continues to reveal over the course of its run. The ways in which a viewer can appreciate Uncut Gems are multitude. Come for a sleek and purely-entertaining crime film and you’ll get a vibrant, 21st century homage to ’70s classics like Straight Time and the work of William Friedkin, all with a dash of New York chutzpah. Come at Uncut Gems as an intellectual, and the Safdies and Sandler’s cross-section of a man caught up in his own tragedy, trying to play it as a comedy, should satisfy essayists and long-winded reviewers the world round. However you approach Uncut Gems, come prepared. It’s the sort of rollercoaster ride that gives movies a good name.