Two years after the release of the pulse-pounding Good Time, Josh and Benny Safdie return to the theater with Uncut Gems, their second respectable genre outing in as many years. Led by Adam Sandler giving the performance of a lifetime, breakout talent Julia Fox, and former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett, Uncut Gems is a modern thriller shot by vintage filmmakers. Fair warning: you’ll be using your jeans to dry your sweat-slicked palms.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a down-on-his-luck jewelry store owner working in Manhattan’s Diamond District in 2012. Howard’s wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) has agreed to a divorce in order to let Howard marry his mistress, Julia (Fox). Neither woman is completely dialed in to how close Howard is to losing everything. A compulsive gambling addiction has caused Howard to accrue more than $100,000 of debt.
With bookies and loan sharks closing in, Howard purchases an uncut black opal. He believes the stone to be worth $1,000,000. Before sending it to an auction house, Howard allows Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to borrow the stone, which KG believes to have magic powers. Howard takes KG’s Celtics championship ring as collateral, and quickly pawns it so he can use the money to gamble. When the bet doesn’t pan out, Howard is stuck trying to come up with the money to buy KG’s ring back.
The Safdie brothers excel at trapping their characters in a series of tense, back-against-the-wall situations. Repeatedly, in both Good Time and Uncut Gems, the siblings opt for jittery suspense at the cost of quiet, human moments. It’s possible to build character in the pressure cooker of an anxiety-riddled scene, but enough of these scenes strung together is a crutch. Excuse the lame pun, but the film’s sparse sensitive scenes are diamonds in the rough.
The Safdies view Howard’s entanglement with Julia and concern his for his family as worldbuilding. It’s a necessary evil to generate maximum discomfort. The story is about New York’s sports gambling underworld, not the people who inhabit it. Regrettably, fostering a deeper connection with Howard and those who surround him would only punch up the climax and the movie’s ending.
In spirit and style, Uncut Gems belongs to the 1980s. The film opens with a psychedelic trip (pun intended) through space and time, contrasting the kaleidoscopic contents of an uncut gem with the recesses of a human intestine. (This shot seems to have been birthed from a lack of better ideas.) Even mirroring the shot toward the end of the movie fails to inspire enlightenment, the desired effect.
Uncut Gems is a draining 135 minutes. It’s demanding, but the exhaustion you feel after is rousing. Backed by a discordant, synth-heavy score from composer Daniel Lopatin, Uncut Gems sets its harsh and fatiguing tone early. Manhattan hasn’t shown this level of syndicated grit since Martin Scorsese populated it with Gangs of New York.
Menzel, Garnett, and Fox moor Uncut Gems, each bringing an understated, nuanced levity to the severity of Howard’s unsustainable debt. Howard himself, meanwhile, is a lovable loser saddled with a crippling addiction, and he’s played to perfection by Sandler. The transformative role tops Brad Pitt in Ad Astra as 2019’s best performance from a leading actor.
Uncut Gems is primped up by a career performance from Sandler and homages to the ‘70s and ‘80s genre films it’s indebted to. Its intensity could demolish a black opal, but don’t bet on the dependably-thrilling Safdie brothers to solve their emotional detachment.