If the only thing that Uncut Gems contributed to cinematic history was a blisteringly excellent scene during a Passover seder, then, in the parlance of “Dayenu” that’s sung during the meal by Jews around the world, “It would have sufficed”. Yet the Safdie brothers’ most recent film is an ode to obsession and anxiety that twists our emotions.
Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a diamond merchant who’s over his head in gambling debts and looking for one last score. He arranges for a large rock to be schlepped from Ethiopia in hopes that it’ll bring him the fortune he’s been waiting for. Along the way, the rock becomes a talisman and is borrowed by a famous basketball player (Kevin Garnett, playing a heightened version of himself). Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is a fixer of sorts who brings in the big money to Howard’s shop, while Ratner matriarch Dinah (Idina Menzel) keeps the family going despite their impending breakup.
These disparate elements swing back and forth, resulting in a film that’s bleakly comical while at the same time dark and somberly violent. Co-writers/directors Josh and Benny Safdie have been honing this balance over their last several projects, and in many ways this is the culmination of their efforts. While Uncut Gems doesn’t have quite the sordid fascination of Good Time, their latest feels perhaps the most formed of their filmography.
The casting of Sandler is one of the film’s greatest achievements. His sense of angst, paranoia, and idiocy makes Howard’s nonsense perfectly believable. The comedian is known for his silly voices, and it’s sometimes jarring when his tone shifts to an angry timbre that’s more reminiscent of Happy Gilmour than, say, a pissed off Al Pacino. However, this adds greatly to the character, making even his most effusive outbursts seem simultaneously unhinged and inadvertently funny.
The film’s convoluted structure will be a slog for some, but the character interplay is fantastic, and is quite evocative of the works of Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the film), where a world of misfit hoodlums all know which buttons to push to make their opponents squirm.
The griminess of the New York setting is both nostalgic and romantic, which makes the urban jungle feel particularly unsettling in contrast to the suburban settings that trade overt threats for passive aggression. Howard’s entire life is collapsing around him due to his hubris and addictions, yet he has enough guile to make the audience root for his philandering ways. Despite all his obnoxiousness, he’s a likeable guy that we get swept up wanting to see succeed.
Uncut Gems is a wonderful exercise in twisting audience emotions. It’s both exhausting and aesthetically rewarding, and has a buzzing sense of drive where each moment feels like you’re falling down a cliff and banging on the slope along the way. In lesser hands, this would make for a surly, predictable movie, but thanks to the Safdies’ gifts and some exceptional performances, we’re treated to one of the most thrilling, anxiety-inducing rides of the year.