Adam Sandler is one of the most divisive names in modern cinema. Despite being critically panned again and again, the man is almost incapable of losing money at the box office. You figure then that there must be an audience, wherever it is they’re lurking and being pretty bloody quiet about it. I think I would be too, were I remotely interested in the schlock his production company have been churning out over the last decade. A major criticism of Sandler is his seeming total lack of imagination. It’s been said he plays himself in every title he can, and almost exclusively commits to a formula of the same old trite toilet humour with a sprinkling of “he-fall-down-haha” physical comedy and well-placed kicks to the testicles. There it is, folks. The single greatest get-rich-quick scheme ever pulled off in the format.
Realistically Sandler and pals could rely on this stunt forever and continue making a killing… he never needs to ‘act’ for the remainder of his career. He went for it, however, pulling out all the stops in 2017’s touching The Meyerowitz Stories by Noah Baumbach… a definite career highlight and for my money his best performance since P.T Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love way back in 2002.
I guess there’s an argument that Baumbach can pull sterling performances out of anyone, and if you still wish to dispel Sandler at this point I imagine that’s a comfy little narrative. But things are for certain changing, and the Happy Madison CEO is back in a dramatic role once again so soon after… and I just don’t see this one getting written off for any technicality.
Uncut Gems is the brainchild of brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, making their return to genre film-making following the success of 2017’s Good Time (also distributed through new school indie titans and frankly, marker of an interesting watch, A24). Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, an unreserved New York jeweller with a serious affinity for gambling. As we join the story, he believes the all-encompassing answer to his issues is in uncut opal. Captivated by the stories of the Nigerian mines they come from, “Howie” locates one for himself, with the intention to auction it off for a projected million dollars.
So the year is 2012 and my god does it look it, too. You’d be wrong in thinking nothing would seem too anachronistic to our world if accidentally misplaced, because the tech and fashion selections in this movie are all so disgustingly era-appropriate that I had a minor existential breakdown. The Safdies have found a way to almost weaponise nostalgia; to blind you a little with the set and setting just long enough to get behind you and cut your throat with the sharp edge of the story.
The two brothers absolutely bring the ruckus once again, and Howie’s attempted journey to financial freedom is brimming with anxiety and apprehension. Partially because the film insists on a cringe-comedy style narrative, whereby the threads of things going wrong around his life just keep piling up and piling up until, even as a viewer, your head’s ready to explode.
The dialogue is also beyond a mile a minute, and that really serves the purpose of demonstrating the intensity of these interactions, and how intertwined these lives have become, and so quickly. There are several scenes where the mix just allows everyone to air their gripes all at once and over one another, screaming bloody murder and with just cause. It’s real, raw, wonderfully nauseating.
It’s impressive how little violence is utilised. I say utilised, as it really is only ever deployed as a tool to punctuate a particularly insane interaction, or to get someone over with the audience as a threat. It’s refreshing for a ‘thriller’ to take this stance, to make sure that less stays more and keep the engagement at a high. I guess the other, slightly more obvious reasoning is that, even temporarily, a punch in the chops is going to plateau the tension. Uncut Gems NEVER wants to do that, and carefully builds around its set pieces to make sure the work done prior wasn’t in vain. Daniel Lopatin’s score is an electronic nightmare framing all of this, pulsating and percussive, and instrumental in helping drive you up the wall.
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Primary support cast includes the brilliant Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Sorry to Bother You), the debuting Julia Fox as Howie’s right-hand woman and mistress, and star NBA power forward Kevin Garnett (as himself). They each turn in truly memorable performances, in orbit of the man making some truly terrible life decisions. Garnett’s role in particular, in the more-than-half-fictionalised portrayal of his real run on top is particularly gripping when used to push the plot forward, as the direct subject of these big money bets.
I caught myself a few times after the first hour genuinely rooting for Howard to succeed… abandoning the sceptic within and straight up being played by the beats of the film, and I was okay with it. I had total trust the moment being built toward in the final act would elicit a big reaction from me one way or another, a feeling the Safdie’s Good Time also got from me pretty easily. How embarrassing. Where did my hard nose go? Honestly, it was fantastic to be back in that territory, and without spoiling anything, I got the huge pay off I wanted by the time the credits rolled. And no, that’s not a pun, stop it.
Uncut Gems is panic inducing. It’s precision film-making by the festival sweethearts and it’s an instant recommend. Adam Sandler has infuriated me once again by showing there was always an actor in there, and that Jack and Jill is the most inexcusable yet completely avoidable crime in cinema history. But, I digress. If you’re looking for an engrossing white-knuckle ride, look no further.