“Made a crazy risk – a gamble – and it’s about to pay off.”
Few films from 2019 had a more meaningful or memorable opening sequence than the anxiety inducing introduction of the intentionally flawed and pawned nature of Uncut Gems. From the Welo mines of Ethiopia in 2010 to the heart of New York City’s diamond district in 2012, the picture literally gets lost in the colorful chasms of a rare opal rock, only to then segue into an internal camera navigating its way through a colonoscopy before closing the opening credits. And with an lovable asshole of a lead character who gets lost in the prospect of hitting it big, Uncut Gems could not have begun with any more telling of a moment. We see the twinkle this man gets lost in, as well as the canals in his being that spew lies from one end and shit from the other, sometimes even confusing the two.
The man of these 2+ hours is Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a proud, middle-aged Jew who owns a high-end jewelry shop. Howard’s an absent father, a cheating husband to his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), and a gambling addict who doubles down when he loses and bets the house when he’s winning. He fools around with the shop’s young employee Julia (Julia Fox), allowing her to stay in his apartment because they “love” each other, and because she’s able to scam celebrities into wearing jewelry, thus driving up retail value. However, a seismic earthquake occurs in the narrative when Howard finally gets the rare opal he’s waited more than a year for, all while his socialite connection Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) has Kevin Garnett (playing himself) in the showroom. It’s the rare calm of a perfect storm before the dust settles and the winds and the waves rip through. Like those entering and exiting Howard’s showroom, Uncut Gems only buzzes us in and out of both doors when it deems fit. There’s such great control on display for us to buy into.
So many films like this one position the lead character as having one ultimate path to salvation, allowing the story to unfold as time counts down to a final make or break decision. Uncut Gems is a modern approach to retro filmmaking though, hearkening back to the likes of John Cassevetes’ 1968 picture Faces, and the whole thing is even more inspired by the late great’s 1976 feature The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Where most writers and directors settle for what’s expected or convenient, the tandem of the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny, who share director credits and penned the picture alongside frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein) always chart their own course, giving those of us in the audience the kind of breathless feeling so absent from almost every single massive multiplex experience. It’s relentless, observant, darkly funny, and is an all too accurate depiction of a life lived under and controlled by the thumb of addiction. The inevitable final scene – so hopeful, manic, and woefully joyful – literally made me nauseous. It’s impossible to not feel something while you watch this man dissolve into his own depraved demise. Turns out he’s both a jeweler and a grave-digger.
Many fans of Adam Sandler will seek this movie out, and for good reason; he’s quite brilliant as a privileged, reckless, feckless man who lives gamble to gamble and deal to deal instead of paycheck to paycheck. I predict an Oscar nomination on the horizon. But as was the case during his star turn in Punch-Drunk Love (still my favorite dramatic role of his), Sandler is at the service of starring in a director’s picture, and that he brings more attention to the entire film is not only good news for the Safdie’s, but is honestly earned by Sandler as well. Still though, I found that Uncut Gems took too long to get where it wanted to go in the long run. It’s still one of the more mesmerizing and visceral films released in 2019, making your skin crawl, your blood boil, and your heart skip a beat. A movie this well versed in salesmanship and haggling is hard to refuse.
Watching Uncut Gems is like being strapped into a towering rollercoaster all day long. At first you appreciate the tease of the slow uphill climb and the almost orgasmic rush that comes from being released at unspeakable speeds with no slowing down in sight. But then the film edges us along, never tapping the brakes, going round and round and round. That’s the clear and present intent of this picture. And in its inception, Uncut Gems comes to us as an external mine and an internal intestine, inspecting the former for riches and the latter for no cancerous polyps. Something is seen in Howard’s colon and a biopsy is taken. But like a collector refusing to spoil a supposedly mint condition opal, he never considers taking a biopsy of the rock. Maybe it won’t return his investment. Maybe it could be worth millions. Hence the tangible frustration and the blinding beauty of the aptly titled and carefully untapped Uncut Gems, a film with a singular and sadistic mindset that believes you can only win big when you risk everything. Addiction is a hell of an impulsive demon, especially when you’re a loser betting on yourself.
“This is how I win.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5