REVIEW: Uncut Gems [2019]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 135 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
Writer(s): Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie

“Black Jew power”

Writers/directors Benny and Josh Safdie‘s debut feature bowed at Cannes in 2009 to spark a rather prolific career spanning shorts, music videos, documentaries, and critically acclaimed independents featuring an increasingly more familiar stable of actors at the lead. I mention this because that’s also the year that the Safdie brothers approached Adam Sandler with the idea that became Uncut Gems. That’s before Lenny Cooke. Before their breakthrough Heaven Knows What. Before they let Robert Pattinson loose in New York City for Good Time. That’s Hollywood. Maybe Sandler said “No” because he saw two green kids with an idea he didn’t see working and perhaps he was correct since a decade of experience goes a long way. Once Jonah Hill exited, however, he wasn’t going to say “No” again.

The rest is history as early festival buzz from Telluride and Toronto put Sandler’s name in the Oscar conversation straight away. That kind of talk is always hyperbolic, but it’s tough to think any prognosticator wouldn’t at least have him as a dark horse along the fringes. Much like how Paul Thomas Anderson tapped into the manic rage that punctuates his comedic shtick via Punch-Drunk Love, the Safdies (alongside frequent collaborator and co-writer Ronald Bronstein) crafted a character in Howard Ratner that coaxes out the dramatic potential Sandler has simply never needed to lean upon for financial success. This is an NYC jeweler with a big house, beautiful wife (Idina Menzel‘s Dinah), three kids, and charmed (if shrewdly bought) peripheral contact to famous friends. He’s also broke.

Well that’s not entirely true considering he has between twenty and two hundred grand in his hands throughout the course of an extremely tense few days. Howard’s problem is that what he possesses is never as good as what he might still possess. This goes for romance with the implosion of his marriage thanks to an affair with his employee Julia (Julia Fox) and money. He owes multiple people large sums of cash, has “borrowed goods” on loan around town with different pawn brokers more than willing to earn interest by housing them, and finds himself physically harassed by two heavies (Keith Williams Richards‘ Phil and Tommy Kominik‘s Nico) at the behest of a loan shark (Eric Bogosian‘s Arno) whose patience ran out. But Howard keeps gambling anyway.

It’s okay, though, because his meal ticket has come in after months of work. No matter how much money he takes and throws away on bad bets, an Ethiopian stone of uncut opal has finally arrived. Worth at least a million bucks by his estimate, the best-case scenario sees a couple wagers coming in alongside the sale of that rock at auction with the worst being the sale itself. Since carefully laid plans never work out perfectly, this day also finds Howard’s off-the-books business partner Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) luring in Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing the 2012 version of himself in the midst of a heated Conference Finals versus the 76ers). KG takes one look at the stone and decides he needs it for good luck.

Things go from bad to terrible quickly once Garnett proves he will do whatever is necessary to not part with this pricy charm. At the same time tensions at home increase, Howard’s circle of collectors closes in, and those he actually wants to talk to won’t take his calls. We go from auction house to Wells Fargo Center to school play to a party headlined by still-releasing-mixtapes-era The Weeknd to Passover at Gooey’s (Judd Hirsch). Whenever Howard gets a whiff of normalcy, Phil and Nico can be seen in the background. Whenever he thinks he’s about to be rich, a gut-punch knocks his breath away to the point where death might be a better alternative. Even so, the glint in his eye for a sure thing never wavers.

Your definition of a “sure thing” and his is very different, though. Howard is compulsive and makes rash decisions on the back of superstition until guessing correctly fuels his greed more than losing everything forces him to continue just to attempt breaking even. So he’s constantly doing stupid things in the belief that this time will be the one to wipe the slate clean. He’s also always playing the game with people he knows because he doesn’t believe they’d actually hurt him. But everyone has his/her line in the sand. Everyone will ultimately stop short of turning themselves into fools and Howard seems to push them up to that limit without fail. And the Safdies are only too keen to show him the devastating price of this disease.

Whereas that impulse often proved too convenient and disjointed during Good Time, the plot behind Uncut Gems‘ race against the clock is firmly entrenched in a meticulously planned out escalation of connected events. How does KG taking the stone affect Howard’s plans? How does his long-expired deadline affect the winning bets he makes? How does his increased frustration and inevitable fear lead to unsound thinking? Every question has an answer and Howard falls deeper and deeper in debt to karma as the walls squeeze tighter around him. Soon he’s lashing out at those who can help and self-sabotaging beyond his instinct to fold every cent he wins back into a lottery of insanely specific wagers. And every single second is dictated by what came before it.

Howard leads himself through a carnival house of horrors as each step forward knocks him down two flights of stairs until every character lays into him with pure vitriol. This could be an employee, family, or stranger—his erratic movements make him an easy target for all. Does Sandler ever lose his smile, stop talking back, or pretend things aren’t too bad? No. He feeds on Howard’s delusions and excels at perpetually going back to a dry well to somehow find the tiniest drop of water to pick himself back up and endure the suffering yet again. That unrelenting attitude is the only predictable part of the whole as the myriad ways he’s knocked down alternate between funny, anxiety inducing, and sad. Eventually, however, his ride will end.


photography:
[1] Adam Sandler. Courtesy of A24
[2] (L-R) Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, Adam Sandler. Courtesy of A24
[3] Julia Fox. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

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