REVIEW: “Uncut Gems” (2019)

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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.

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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.

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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

2-5-stars

23 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Uncut Gems” (2019)

  1. I didn’t love Good Time but I am genuinely interested in how this goes. I’m pretty sure the last movie I thought Sandler was good in was Spanglish.

    • It has gotten a ton of praise and in many ways I can see why. If you can lock in to what it’s doing you’ll probably enjoy it. I found myself wanting something deeper.

  2. I’m still interested in seeing this just to see what Sandler would do when he’s not catering to the lowest common denominator. Plus, I still haven’t seen anything by the Safdie Brothers though I think Good Time is the film I want to see from them first.

    • I’m in the minority on this one it seems. Lots of people are crying Oscar nomination. I don’t see it but again, lots of people love it, and I admit Sandler is quite good in it.

  3. Highly enjoyed this movie, which shocked me as I didn’t love Good Time like everyone seemed to. Since I last stated on Twitter that it was in my top 5, I’ve since rethought that take. But, can still say it’s in my top 10 easily with only a few more “must sees” to get through.

    • There are several things I do respect about it. Mostly it’s nice to see Sandler not doing something lazy and juvenile. That’s refreshing.

      I think Star Wars is the last thing I need to see. I’ve given up on 1917 coming to my area this year. Bums me out but out of my hands. Already started a rough draft of my Top 10. Hard to believe it’s already that time of year.

  4. I think realistically I think I just can’t be bothered. I am a huge fan of both The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates but Sandler just seems like he chooses the most ridiculous projects!

    • He’s getting tons of praise for this one. Maybe even an Oscar nomination soon. I just couldn’t get in with it though. I feel like I’m in the minority.

  5. Bummer that you didn’t like the ride man! 😉 I liked Good Time better, but shit, a 2-hour movie has rarely flown by so fast!!

    I am a massive fan of basketball and Kevin Garnett tho… And I guess I’ve never been one to be too bothered with plotholes. Plus I swear that often myself, its a bad habit but luckily it didn’t distract. You are right though, there is a LOT of it. But I dunno, it sounds right to me when combined with that classic NY accent 😀

    And yeah, Sandler was great, no question. Oscar noms though, naah. Great but not -that- great. But like you mentioned, this and Punch Drunk Love are the only movies with him that have interested me, I’d love to see him in more non-moronic movies like Pixels

  6. “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.” Maybe this is just me, but nowhere does it say that all films need to be really complex in order to be good.

    A film like “Die Hard” may not have the deepest plot in the world (terrorists seize large building, smart ex-cop in said building runs wild and eventually takes them all out), but it’s so well-crafted and well-written that I didn’t care in the slightest. Personally, I think the same is true for “Uncut Gems” as well, though I might have to watch it again in order to be sure.

    • Also, “Uncut Gems” was heavily inspired by the directors’ father’s experiences with the NYC diamond district trade, so it’s obviously a very personal film for them. At the very least, you have to admit that it captures the lives of these rough, down-and-dirty hustlers very authentically.

    • Nope, all films don’t have to be complex in order to be good. I have tons of reviews in my archives that prove that to be true. But sticking with your comparison, Die-Hard isn’t a deep think-piece. But it has so many other things that make it such a great film: great genre appeal, thrilling action, terrific characters, a top-notch villain, etc. It’s a film where you CAN look elsewhere and see more things worthwhile. That’s why I would call Die-Hard a significantly better film than Gems. Different genres of course but you get what I mean.

  7. Also, your review never mentions the incredible music by Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never), which I absolutely loved. Even if you didn’t like it yourself, it’s at least worth bringing up there.

    • Perhaps. It’s just not something that stood at to me which is why it’s not mentioned. To be honest I don’t remember a thing about the music. I do know others who really liked it though.

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