The hero of Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film “Uncut Gems”, which was released on Netflix this Friday, is probably one of the most incorrigible characters I have ever seen during recent years. Constantly and helplessly driven by impulse and temper, he keeps making his desperate situation worse and worse, and it is often horribly fascinating to watch how he gets himself tumbled into one bottom after another as struggling and squiggling to find any possible way out.
During the early part of the movie, we gradually come to gather how messy the circumstance is for Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a Jewish-American jeweler running his own small jewel shop in the Diamond District of New York City. While his relationship with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) seems to be beyond repair, he is not particularly good to his girlfriend/employee Julia (Julia Fox) either, and his mind is usually occupied with how to solve his dire financial problem. Due to his gambling addiction, he has recently borrowed lots of money from a local loan shark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), and Arno’s henchmen are ready to squeeze Howard as hard as possible despite a close personal connection between Arno and Howard.
After being threatened by Arno’s henchmen, Howard promptly borrows some money from others, but, not so surprisingly, this borrowed money is soon spent for another gambling of his, and he is confident that he will succeed this time just because of one accidental encounter. When his associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings a certain famous basketball player of the Boston Celtics into Howard’s jewel shop, that basketball player shows considerable interest on a rare Ethiopia opal which Howard has just acquired, and Howard comes to borrow the opal to that basketball player for a while as it may bring some luck to him as well as that basketball player, who will soon participate in a big game on which Howard bets lots of money.
I will not go into details on the outcome of that big game, but it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Howard finds himself in a far messier circumstance than before as facing several unexpected setbacks, and the movie becomes darkly amusing as observing his following frantic attempt to get things under control at least for a while. No matter how much he tries, his situation does not get better at all, and he only comes to face bigger troubles after making a series of unwise choices on impulse and frustration. In addition, Arno and his henchmen become more impatient and exasperated than ever, and that leads to an absurd scene which results in lots of humiliation for Howard.
Although it feels relatively less quick and urgent than the Safdie brothers’ previous film “Good Time” (2017), the movie patiently accumulates its suspense and narrative momentum under their skillful direction, and it also shows some morbid sense of humor from time to time. I particularly like the opening title scene which starts from a big opal mine in Ethiopia and then ends with a certain medical procedure, and I was amused a bit by a brief scene between Howard and his older son, who turns out to be an apple not falling that far from its tree.
The technical aspects of the movie are top-notch. While cinematographer Darius Khondji establishes well a vivid urban atmosphere on the screen, the editing by the Safdie brothers and their co-editor/co-writer Ronald Bronstein is smooth and efficient as steadily increasing narrative pacing, and the electronic score by Daniel Lopatin, who previously collaborated with the Safdie brothers in “Good Time”, adds more propulsion to what is being unfolded on the screen.
Above all, the movie is strongly anchored by the very compelling lead acting by Adam Sandler, who demonstrates here that he can be quite serious and effective under right condition. Although he has frequently wasted his time and talent on many disposable comedy films, Sandler has sometimes shown the more serious side of his talent through a few notable drama films such as “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” (2017), and he surely throws himself into full throttle mode here in this film without any compromise. Not making any excuse on his pathetic character’s abrasive sides at all, he constantly keeps us on the edge as exuding sheer intensity generated from accumulating desperation and frustration, and we come to pay more attention to his character’s worsening situation even while watching him from the distance.
Sandler is also surrounded by a number of various good performers. While Julia Fox and Idina Menzel hold each own place well as two different women in Howard’s crumbling life, Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Standfield, and Judd Hirsch are also well-cast in their respective supporting roles, and the special mention goes to the aforementioned basketball player, who has some wry fun with playing a fictional version of himself.
In conclusion, “Uncut Gems” is another superbly intense genre piece from the Safdie brothers, and Sander gives a supremely entertaining performance which is indubitably one of the best works in his career in addition to being one of the most powerful performances of last year. Like Robert Pattinson did in “Good Time”, he boldly pushes himself into challenges as taking a lot more chance than usual, and I sincerely wish that he was not serious at all when he recently said that he would make more bad films if he failed to get Oscar-nominated for this film. Seriously, he is too talented to be wasted like that.