Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
2 hours 15 minutes
Adam Sandler disappears into another dominant dramatic role in Uncut Gems, a frenetic and fraught character study of a hopelessly degenerate gambler with his back perpetually against the wall.
Benny and Josh Safdie, who also helmed 2017’s similarly frenzied Good Time, have perfected a brand of controlled chaos that’s designed to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension throughout.
Playing out like a two-hour panic attack, the film captures a seedy subsection of New York where nothing ever seems to slow down and everyone is constantly grinding for the next big score. It’s unquestionably a stressful world to inhabit, so much so that audiences will likely have to catch their breath after they leave the theater.
We first meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy, a rare moment when he’s not in motion. To say that Howard has problems would be a massive understatement. He owes money to bookies all over the city, whose enforcers seem to lurk behind every corner. We see Howard make bets with money that he shouldn’t have in the first place and pawn merchandise from his jewelry store to cover his losses.
His only saving grace comes in the form of an uncut Ethiopian opal that he smuggles into the country, which he intends to put to auction, but he makes the mistake of showing it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) first. This throws Howard’s plan completely out of orbit and sets off a chain of events that make his situation even more desperate than it already was.
Uncut Gems finds a totem that encapsulates its protagonist perfectly in an early scene when Howard shows off a blinged-out Furby necklace to Garnett and his entourage. With its creepy smile and manic shifty eyeballs, it perfectly symbolizes who Howard is and what gambling addiction has done to his life.
And it’s not as if he’s unaware either. “I’m so stressed out,” he laments to his mistress as she offers a consolation cuddle. That he can’t see a way to rise above his problems is obviously tragic, but the more we get to know Howard, the more we come to understand that he is likely the source of almost all of his misfortune. After all, he’s morally reprehensible, brazenly tactless, and about as egomaniacal as one could be.
Despite this, we somehow still root for Howard in his escalating endeavors and almost all of that credit goes to Sandler in a role that may have been fully intolerable had another actor been involved instead.
We’ve gotten tastes of his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love and more recently in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). But here, he raises his game even higher than he has in the past.
As we all know, Sandler has done loads of terrible comedies in the past and he will almost certainly commit to more in the future. My feeling is that if that’s what he needs to do for us to get a performance as revelatory as the one in this film, then it might all just be worth it.
The Safdies have proven yet again that no one makes films that are quite as propulsive and unnerving as their own. They push our expectations for just how stressful a situation can become and how much worse things can get for our protagonist. While there are brief moments of respite and release, anxiety permeates nearly every fiber of the film.
Uncut Gems is like a domino set if the dominos were replaced with sticks of dynamite, where every interaction and obstacle is calibrated for maximum impact.
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