I can’t tell you the last time I was genuinely curious about an Adam Sandler movie. Maybe 2002 with “Punch Drunk Love”? His latest man-child venture, the blandly titled but propulsive “Uncut Gems”, reminds us that when given the right kind material Sandler is more than capable of keeping your attention. And he certainly keeps you watching here even when other elements of the film test your endurance.
“Uncut Gems” comes from the directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie. The pair also co-wrote the film along with Ronald Bronstein. It doesn’t take long to notice the movie doesn’t have much in terms of narrative. The Safdies seem far more interested in breaking the single movie f-bomb record than really putting together a compelling plot. Obviously I’m being a little facetious, but with the exception of a character or two, no one can hardly utter a line of dialogue without it. It’s a pretty big distraction.
The story is as simple as this: Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy jeweler working in New York’s Diamond District who owes some really bad people a lot of money (for what, I don’t know). We do learn he is a compulsive high-stakes sports gambler and he’ll pawn off anything for money whether it belongs to him or not. We end up following him around for over two hours as he works different angles to try and score some cash to pay off his debt. It requires a lot of lying, a lot of yelling, and a lot of avoiding various people he owes.
Howard thinks he has found the answer to all his problems when he gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal which he values at $1 million. Normally that would be an incredible score, but Howard fails to consider his one biggest hurdle – himself. He’s a natural screw-up and after one irresponsible act here and a poor choice there he finds himself deeper in trouble than he was before.
The Safdies do try to add a little depth to Howard by throwing in some scenes with his estranged wife (Idina Menzel) and kids. To no one’s surprise they don’t like him very much since he’s proven himself to be self-centered and unreliable. About the only person who does is his girlfriend-on-the-side Julia (Julia Fox) who he secretly shares an apartment with. She’ll pretty much help him with anything and forgive him regardless of what he does.
None of the family scenes add much other than to establish his credentials as a crappy husband and father and also that he is Jewish. But again, the Safdies aren’t too concerned with that. They’re all about propelling forward at an adrenalized fever-pitch. The film’s aggressive pacing is relentless. There’s no nuance or complexity. It simply wants you to grab hold and brace yourself as it bulls forward. Stop to look for more and you’re going to be disappointed.
One of the film’s big upsides is Darius Khondji’s kinetic cinematography. Khondji has shot several films I truly love including “Se7en” with David Fincher, “Midnight in Paris” with Woody Allen, and “Amour” with Michael Haneke. Here he creates a gritty, street-level aesthetic that maintains this steady fluorescent glow. He uses tight closeups and assertive camera movements which gives the movie some extra kick.
Many have mentioned anxiety and frazzled nerves when talking about “Uncut Gems”. I didn’t really have that kind of reaction. Instead I found myself asking more questions than I should have. How has Howard not been arrested? How has he not been killed? How does he still have a business? How is he still married? How can so many people be swindled (either emotionally or in business) buy such an obvious scumbag? I guess you could argue that Howard is shrewd and charismatic. But in “Uncut Gems” all we see is him consistently failing. But again, the Safdie’s are more interested in the ride.
So if you’re into what the Safdies are doing you’ll probably love this. But for others it will be similar to colonoscopy we see at the very beginning – extremely unpleasant. Sandler’s character may not be the best company, but his performance is solid. All of them are including from Lakeith Stanfield and NBA star Kevin Garnett. But I think you could make a case that this film wants to be off-putting. If so, mission accomplished.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS