Principal Cast : Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, Keith Williams, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesca, Jonathan Arabayev, Jacob Igielski, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Pom Klementieff, The Weekend.
Synopsis: A charismatic New York City jeweller always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
I’m known for my general dislike of Adam Sandler as a comic, and his comedy films have almost always left me feeling slightly dumber for having watched them (I saw The Waterboy in theatres, paying actual money like an idiot), but there’s no denying that when he’s working with the right material and doing solid dramatic turns, the man can be as exciting to watch as any of his contemporaries. It’s a sad fact that Sandler never took on the challenge alluded to in Punch Drunk Love, giving himself over to more serious roles when easy money could be made with shit like Jack & Jill, Grown Ups, Blended and The Ridiculous 6 (as examples). With Uncut Gems, Sandler reinvigorates his dramatic career (far from the mild flirtation of Funny People) in a blistering, shattering performance that will make many a critic sit up and take notice; a tour de force, Uncut Gems is a propulsive, explosive experience not to be missed.
New York City jeweller Howard Ratner (Sandler) lives life on the edge; addicted to sports gambling, he is mired in debt to a variety of loan sharks and gangsters and struggles to keep his business open, and his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox) happy. His estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is considering divorce proceedings, and Howard’s only real chance of a payoff, NBA player Kevin Garnett (as himself) is keen to purchase a rare uncut opal from Ethiopia, something Howard plans to auction off to pay off his debts. A series of stupid decisions soon cause that simple idea to turn deadly, and with the sharks circling for blood, Howard must use all his wiles to extricate himself from a violent end.
Uncut Gems is a blistering cinematic experience by a duo of directorial virtuosos who know how to craft a thrilling story even when there’s nothing happening. Benny and Josh Safdie, aka the Safdie Brothers, are renowned indie directors in their home city of New York and make the transition to the big leagues with A24’s acclaimed thriller; to say they knock it out of the park is a gross understatement. Uncut Gems’ is a rollercoaster, a pulsating ride into a dark, seedy underworld of jewel appraisal, a man’s desperate attempts to get himself out of trouble, and the constant, biting stupidity which costs him his very soul. It’s hard to tell whether the film is a diatribe on addiction, or whether it’s trying to be a black comedy (a little bit of both?) but it’s an all-round masterpiece of twists and turns that will keep you guessing the entire way through. It’s the kind of film you watch holding your breath, and when it finished you suddenly find yourself having to exhale. Tense? Absolutely. The Safdie Brothers, together with co-writer Ronald Bronstein, throw everything at the screen and everything at Howard to make him (and by extension, us) wriggle helplessly like a worm on a hook. Their ability to cross thread plot points and weave a multitude of character interaction is fascinating, honed to a sharp, white-hot poker of keeping the audience uneasy with what’s transpiring, whilst simultaneously asking us to root for the underdog.
Howard Ratner isn’t a nice man. He’s a philanderer, a gambler, a cheater, and an unscrupulous businessman. Which makes the focus on him all the more interesting, because we keep wanting to see him succeed rather than fail: in Uncut Gems, he fails a lot. And hard. Part of Howard’s problem is that he’s basically a loser, who makes poor decisions and then tries to vacate punishment through even stupider acts of idiocy. Watching his life spiral out of control – or even further out of what little control he begins with – is both magnificently tortuous and resplendently New York City, an unforgiving cesspool of crime and lust riven by grime and corruption as beautiful as the multi-hued opal at the heart of the story. As a character he has few scruples, ascribing to the methodology of selling his grandmother to make a quick buck, so you’d think watching him come undone would be euphoric with karmic joy, but in fact the exact opposite is true: we hope, against all hope, that Howard comes out of this rapidly contracting scrape with all his limbs intact.
Key to this is Sandler’s riveting, highly-strung portrayal of Howard, the film’s centrifugal character. Everything whirls around him, with a bizarre mix of Woody Allen-esque doublespeak and Aaron Sorkin verbosity, interspersed with an avalanche of foul language: the role was originally intended to go to Jonah Hill by all reports, and yet I can only now envisage Sandler handling such manic activity. It’s a screaming, full-throttle character and Sandler is magnificent doing it. Frankly, I don’t think he’s been better and I include Punch Drunk Love in that equation, so you can take it to the bank that I enjoyed it. Abetting him is actual NBA star Kevin Garnett, who plays himself throughout and acquits himself admirably alongside seasoned thespians. Lakeith Stanfield plays a gangsta recruiter who brings clients to Howard’s store, nearly unrecognisable with cornrows and slick Yankee accent, whilst surprise package Idina Menzel, stepping away from the Broadway stage and Disney microphone for a moment gives her best shot as Howard’s estranged and long-suffering wife. Menzel, it turns out, isn’t a great screen actress, given the continued blankness and frustrating inpetness with which she delivers her lines. The part ill-suits her, to be honest, and in a film filled with great characters she’s the weakest element. Bit parts to Judd Hirsch as Howard’s father-in-law, Eric Bogosian as Amo, a loan shark wanting his pound of flesh out of Howard, and several NYC rapper cameos (including The Weekend and Ca$h Out) flesh out the denizens of Howard’s world, while genuine kudos go to Julia Fox for solid work in the unforgiving role of Howard’s girlfriend/mistress, Julia, just about the most tragic creature in this whole wanton tapestry.
Uncut Gems is an explosion of story and character that crashes into the screen with vivacity and an intensity that’s hard to adequately describe. Few films have been as raw, as adrenalized, as mainlining-acid-into-the-brainstem head-trip as this film’s brutal, ragged prowess. It’s the kind of film that sledgehammers you into enjoying it, despite the harshness and slithering nature of Howard’s business and dealings, a doggedly unflinching character portrayal that reveals more and more as it goes along. Powerful, incredibly tense, magnificently dark and dangerous, Uncut Gems is an actual gem of a movie led by a truly great performance by Adam Sandler.
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