Adam Sandler is excellent as a New York gem dealer in trouble for gambling debts in this high octane drama from Josh and Bennie Safdie.
I became a fan of the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, after I saw their previous film from a couple years ago, Good Time, which I reviewed on this show. Good Time covered a day or two in the life of a manic, risk-taking criminal played by Robert Pattinson. That was a propulsion rocket of a film in which each crazy predicament seemed to outdo the last one. The Safdie brothers write and direct their pictures together with screenwriting and editing help from their friend Ronald Bronstein. Their new film is called Uncut Gems, and its style and energy are similar to Good Time, but more so. Much more so.
Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a gem dealer in the famed Diamond District of Manhattan. Howard is always on the move, always trying to make the next deal, while at the same time always trying to get out of whatever scrape he’s gotten himself into. He’s a gambling addict, making bets on basketball games with a recklessness that is pretty close to being deranged. Married with three kids, his wife his fed up with his antics and wants a divorce. He lives in a separate apartment with his much younger lover (and employee) Julia, played by Julia Fox.
The plot gets rolling when Howard buys an uncut Ethiopian black opal, a stone which contains brilliant differently colored gleaming gems on its surface. Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett—playing himself, and quite well, I might add—visits Howard’s shop and wants the opal, but Howard has committed it to a big auction dealer. Garnett pleads with him and then Howard unwisely lets him borrow the stone for a few days, holding his championship ring as collateral, which he then goes and pawns for money to bet on the next Celtics game. Meanwhile he owes a lot of money to a guy named Arno, played by a weary-looking Eric Bogosian, who has hired a couple of thugs to get the money back from Howard through threats and violence. Later in the film, at a Passover celebration at Howard’s family home, we are surprised to see Arno in attendance. Apparently he’s an in-law. Now, the plot description doesn’t do justice to this film’s relentless rhythm, as Sandler’s character scrambles through one tense scene after another in pursuit of the big score, almost always talking on his cell phone, while trying to avoid his enemies.
I’ve heard that some folks who don’t read film reviews—and I realize many people don’t—have gone to this movie expecting a typical Adam Sandler film, and ended up walking out. This is not a comedy. Now, once in awhile Sandler has tried doing something different than usual, such as, for example, Punch-Drunk Love or even Spanglish, and this one is played absolutely straight, although there’s a grim sense of humor at times if you pay attention. In any case, it’s excellent work by Sandler.
Howard is a maniacally driven individual, liable to lash out or do self-destructive things when he wants what he wants now, and Sandler’s intense, crouching presence really draws you in. The film is practically designed to raise your blood pressure, with not very much down time in between scenes of yelling and arguing, overlapping dialogue, intermittent fear, violence and bullying, all the while accompanied by Daniel Lopatin’s pulsating musical score.
The Safdies are very interested in urban Jewish life, and especially in restless and ambitious Jewish people, driven by neurosis and dissatisfaction, and they really capture that feeling in this film. Howard, and the film, seems always poised just on the edge of disaster, and the audience feels that something terrible could happen at any moment. This suspense reaches its absolute height during the last half hour or so of the movie, which I won’t spoil by describing. I’ll only say that when you hear the phrase “on the edge of your seat” this is kind of what that means. Uncut Gems is a terrific piece of work, and Adam Sandler gets to show how good an actor he can be when he’s given a chance.