2019 | rated R | starring Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menze, Kevin Garnett | directed by Ben and Josh Safdie | 2 hrs 15 mins |
Starting with a David Fincher-esque pull inside a freshly cut opal gem itself and pushing the audience along at the speed of an early Paul Thomas Anderson movie for an hour 2 hour running time that almost never flags, Uncut Gems is a cinematic rollercoaster ride. It’s performances, story and character (all of which are great), play base to the film as a work of visceral kinetic energy. Movement is king here with co-writers/directors the Safdie brothers using quick cuts, near-constant music, overlapping dialog and every other technique in the book to turn the movie into a prolonged cardiac stress test. It’s great.
A well-build sophomore film from the Safdie’s whose first film, the Robert Pattinson vehicle Good Time, was similarly driven by long-winded kinetic energy. Uncut Gems feels sturdier, more deliberate despite the chaotic hard edges. At it’s core is a passive character study of a man named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jewel who runs a little store behind 2 locked bulletproof doors whose life is so chaotic that a mysterious image on a colonoscopy x-ray immediately falls off his list of priorities. He’s a sports betting addict, who spends his days chasing the loose ends of an elaborate scheme where he pawns off items from his store as collateral, places a bet and turns the money back in for the jewel by the end of the week. This week, however, the stakes are higher, Howard has bought an opal rock from right out of an African mine and traded it to Boston Celtic player Kevin Garnett (as himself) for luck with the game, while he parlay’s Garnett’s championship ring for cash to bet on the game. Garnett becomes somewhat superstitious about the rock, one that Howard plans to put up for auction and the Russian mafia is chasing Howard around at every turn for an outstanding debt.
Howard’s personal life is equally frazzled, his wife (Idina Menzel) can’t stand him, he’s had it with his girlfriend and a girl at the store is so in love with him that she’s tattooed his name on her butt. He’s both a celebrity and a pariah in his own social circle. This is how you weave together a script centered around sports betting. The premise sounds like a bit of eating your greens, but it is masterfully executed on a technical level. The Safdie’s keep all of these plates spinning against each other and we sit on pins and needles waiting to see what will fall and what havoc it will bring. I also love their naturalistic rat-tat-tat dialog and use of a gritty unglamorous, almost 80s era, New York. The film is set, curiously at first, in 2012 which facilitates Howard’s encounters with Garnett and the Safdie’s special guest star, The Weekend.
Adam Sandler is great here. It would be a star turn performance, but Sandler has turned this star before several times. While the performance never quite hits his career high, Punch-Drunk Love, and he’s about one buck-toothed centimeter from falling into a grotesque Jewish stereotype, Sandler is perfectly cast and either able to keep up with, or is helping drive himself, the Safdie’s energy. This movie doesn’t work if he isn’t as good as he is here.
Uncut Gems marks the Safdie brother’s footprint on the scene as serious new talent. Here’s hoping they don’t repeat this style ad nauseum and channel it into stories, like this one, that benefit from the energy. Gems is a nervy anxiety machine that’s thrilling technically and thrilling as a story. It’s one of the better movies of 2019.