Let's talk about missing out, shall we?
In 2017, in the midst of films like Bong Joon-ho's 'Okja' and Sophia Coppola's 'The Beguiled' taking most of the buzz during the Cannes Film Festival, a little project called 'Good Time' started to make a lot of heads turn, and at the center of that attention was the directing duo of Josh and Ben Safdie. It was chaotic, exciting, and starred Robert Pattinson in what was being described as a career-best performance…and I completely missed out on it during its limited run. Yeah, I heard the buzz, but I never really understood what the big deal was, until I actually saw the film and, well, more on that in a second.
At the same time, you had Adam Sandler, who was having a bit of head-turn moment as well, starring in Noah Baumbach's 'The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)' and making his annual reminder that he's actually a good actor. Seriously, through fault seemingly of his own doing, Sandler has consistently been underappreciated as a performer, not just with 'The Meyerowitz Stories,' but the criminally underappreciated 'Reign Over Me' (don't ask me about 'Punch Drunk Love,' I haven't seen it yet).
In a bizarre sense of the word, it felt completely natural for a pair of directors who seemed to make diamonds out of infernos to give an outlet for a performer like Adam Sandler, so did we get something shiny and bright or too faded to stand out?
'Uncut Gems,' like 'Good Time' is not the type of movie you see with high anxiety…or actually maybe it is, my point being this movie is frantic, unconcerned with any sort of hand-holding or patience, only that you sit down and look at it. That kind of franticness isn't necessarily something I wholeheartedly gravitated towards, but I certainly appreciate a lot of the effort for a story that revels in a rare, unhinged kind of chaos, and yes, reminds us just how good Adam Sandler can deliver when he is given the right material.
In 2012, Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler) is a jeweler working in the Diamond District in New York City. He's currently having an affair with one of his employees, Julia (played by Julia Fox), in the midst of an upcoming divorce with his wife, Dinah (played by Idina Menzel). In addition, he is struggling to pay back a myriad of debts, including to his brother-in-law, Arno (played by Eric Bogosian), who has resorted to sending enforcers such as Phil (played by Keith Williams Richards) after Howard. Howard's associate, Demany (played by LaKeith Stanfield), recruits basketball player Kevin Garnett (played by himself) as a customer for the business.
When Howard shows off his newest asset - a rare piece of Ethiopian opal - Garnett becomes enthralled with it. Despite the gem being reserved at an upcoming auction, Garnett offers Howard his Boston Celtics ring as collateral to borrow the gem as a good luck charm in his next game. Howard pawns the ring, bets on the game, and plans to buy the ring back using the money he plans on winning. This backfires when the gem gets misplaced, forcing Howard to grow even more desperate, as his professional and personal lives fall apart at the seams.
The best place to start with 'Uncut Gems' actually isn't Sandler's performance, but the Safdie Brothers' direction. It's a highly intentional choice that will likely make or break the film for you, as it did for me, and it may not be an immediate reaction. Make no mistake, this is a film that doesn't let up, as even its "more somber moments" have an overwhelming sense of tension about them. I had a chance to see this film for a second time after my first viewing and the sense of food grinder-like pacing started to feel more natural that time around.
A lot of that tone is given a lot of technical heft as well. Darius Khondji's cinematography captures New York in a way that calls to mind something like 'Taxi Driver,' but through the lens of modern architecture and cultural seediness (see 'Joker' for the opposite of this effect). In addition, Daniel Lopatin's score has the moodiness of Mica Levi with the sheer bombast of someone like Junkie XL, and it definitely keeps you awake when it has to.
*Side note: This is also one of the few times in film or television where I've seen an actual Passover sedar depicted on screen and, even in the midst of the craziness, it's so cool to see that represented.
Once you realize all of those elements working in tandem, then we can get to Adam Sandler and, like the film or not, you will walk away believing the impossible: that Adam Sandler is one of the greatest male performers working today. This is coming from a guy who believed for a long time that Sandler was just going to keep making foolhardy comedies with his friends and had accepted all of it, but by god, he is tremendous in this.
The casting of Sandler is kind of genius, as it forces us as the audience to gaze past the sincerity we've seen him portray and for Sandler himself to dive into the characters' darker subtleties. Howard is a slimy, foolish gambling addict who we want to believe, deep down, has a love for keeping his family happy. But as the film goes on and he resists every opportunity given to him, you start to see that façade fade away, leaving someone who can only view the money from the gem as the ultimate goal.
The supporting cast are a bit of mixed bag, as some are truly great and some feel a bit underdeveloped for what Howard's relationships to them are. Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield and even Judd Hirsh feel a bit underutilized by some of the dialogue choices, even though they're all giving solid efforts. A lot of talk has been made about Kevin Garnett's portrayal of himself, and it does remind me a bit of Harry Style's turn in 'Dunkirk,' it's kind of great. But the real star aside from Sandler is newcomer Julia Fox as Howard's girlfriend, Julia, who has this great sense of charisma and, dare I say, charm that almost reaches the levity the movie needs (key word: almost).
As I've attempted to drill into this review, this is not your classic drama/crime thriller and I won't lie that I'm not as overly enthusiastic as a lot of other critics have been. It almost feels like some of those unique directing choices like overlaying dialogue, natural sound, and Lopatin's score to enhance those time bomb-like senses take away from some of the focus we could give to these characters. In addition, I've heard some of the explanations for why the film is set in 2012 and, in a year where Lorene Scafaria could navigate the decade-long narrative of 'Hustlers' and make each year feel distinctly lived in, this feels unfinished, settling for a few basketball references (that I didn't understand) and The Weeknd playing himself on the verge of popularity...eh?
In the end, 'Uncut Gems' isn't a film that totally hooked me, but that doesn't take away from a lot of the truly excellent things about it. A fantastic central performance, strangely quotable dialogue, and, at the very least, admirable directional choices that make it a film you can't forget all that easily. See it for Sandler alone, you'll walk away cheering for the guy to get proper awards consideration. As far as the rest of the film, well, that shiny sheen takes a bit of work to get to, but the results are actually something pretty special.
Overall, I give 'Uncut Gems' 8/10.
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