Uncut Gems, 2019.
Directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie.
Starring Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Jonathan Aranbayev, Mike Francesa, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Paloma Elsesser, Judd Hirsch, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Sahar Bibiyan, Lana Levitin, Keith Williams Richards, Pom Klementieff, The Weeknd, Trinidad James, Tilda Swinton, and Natasha Lyonne.
A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win.
It’s basically a set pattern at this point that Adam Sandler surprises audiences with an effort-filled performance every couple of years, sandwiched in-between several lousy Netflix “comedies” and all his usual genre output.
But this time he’s not paired himself with a storied auteur such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Noah Baumbach, but the down-and-dirty – yet undeniably on-the-rise – filmmaker duo Benny and Josh Safdie, best known for their riveting 2017 Robert Pattinson-starring thriller Good Time.
And the result of this unorthodox partnership is a beguiling yet frequently stunning piece of work that’s easily the best thing its star or creators have ever done. While sure to alienate both fans of Sandler’s traditional content and anyone with moderate-to-severe levels of anxiety, Uncut Gems is nevertheless an entrancingly intense ride well worth taking.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweler operating in New York’s snazzy Diamond District, who quite unfortunately also happens to be a gambling addict. When his creditors come a-calling, Howard hopes that his recent receipt of a prized black opal gem, which he intends to send to auction, might solve all of his problems. But ever at the mercy of his own compulsive vices, Howard wrestles as much against his own self-destructive gambling habits as he does those he owes money.
This is a tricky proposition of a film for several reasons; first and foremost, almost every scene in the movie consists of characters talking over – and often, shouting over – one another. If this annoys you enough in real life, it’s likely to do the same here, even accepting the fraught nature of Howard’s situation – if often self-inflicted. But this overlapping approach to dialogue does also help Uncut Gems feel uniquely grounded and believable as a scenario which could transpire, in all of its wordy drama, in real life.
The second major hurdle is that Sandler’s protagonist is such a tough sell. He’s loud, he’s vulgar, and he frequently seems to shuffle himself closer to the edge of a cliff he just can’t help but peer down at any moment. Even when a bet or deal goes his way, he’s immediately pondering how he can parlay the win into an even bigger windfall. While frustrating, it perfectly encapsulates the gambler’s self-annihilating mindset, and in a remarkably subtle way, Sandler quite brilliantly exploits his popular persona to shockingly subversive effect.
Though Sandler is best known for his boisterous, obnoxious knucklehead characters, Howard is a more believable brand of brash, and most crucially, is also imbued with a weird and unexpected amount of charm by the funnyman. He becomes a figure the audience almost comes to root for if only to see him avoiding a grim fate, and that’s largely because Sandler lends an air of quiet sympathy to a man who is quite clearly his own worst enemy.
It’s a remarkable trick from Sandler, a talented actor who frequently takes the creative low-road for a mighty paycheck, and a performance that is without question the most nuanced and engaging work of his entire three-decade career.
He’s also backed up by a killer supporting cast. Julia Fox, quite unbelievably a first-time actress, is rather brilliant in her own right as Howard’s mistress Julia, and despite her first impression perhaps suggesting a trophy girlfriend stereotype, she’s by turns far more complex than that. Lakeith Stanfield is also reliably solid as Howard’s frustrated assistant Demany, and Judd Hirsch gets a few cracking scenes as Howard’s father-in-law Gooey – though many of the film’s most memorable roles actually come from non-actors.
In particular, former NBA star Kevin Garnett is surprisingly hilarious here, playing a fictionalised version of himself who becomes near-literally hypnotised by the opal gem which comes into Howard’s possession, and occasional actor Idina Menzel, of course better known for her singing, is effective in a few brief scenes as Howard’s exasperated, long-suffering estranged wife Dinah.
Uncut Gems is certainly directed with all the urgency and panache befitting a pair of hungry young filmmakers, and the Safdies are supported by a robust technical package throughout. The aesthetic revels in its scuzziness almost as much as Good Time did, with legendary DP Darius Khondji’s grainy, handheld camerawork perfectly creating a lived-in, grungy depiction of the New York streets.
If a stirring musical score from Daniel Lopatin – who also scored the Safdies’ previous – sets the tone wonderfully, what’s truly memorable about Uncut Gems aurally-speaking, is the fantastic sound mix spearheaded by Oscar-winning mixer Skip Lievsay (Gravity, Roma).
Ingeniously, incidental dialogue – be it the bustling city streets or peripheral characters speaking in the background – is pushed to the front of the mix and, when viewed on the big screen, recreates the enervating intensity of reality with a jaw-dropping verisimilitude.
Though it’s probably an effect too subtle for the Academy to reward with a Best Sound Mixing Oscar nomination, and its impending Netflix release internationally means many won’t benefit from hearing it through an industry-grade sound system, it is absolutely one of the most creative and effective soundscapes of the entire year, without a spaceship, superhero, or race car in sight no less.
Uncut Gems won’t be for everyone, and that’s absolutely fine; I can’t blame anyone who finds its aggressive pace too offputting or simply struggles to connect with Sandler’s character. But for audiences prepared to follow Sandler and the Safdies down this dark path, it’s a tremendously rewarding – and, yes, stressful as hell – drama without even a whiff of artistic compromise about it.
The Safdie brothers’ latest crackles with an uncommonly nervy energy, anchored at all times by Adam Sandler’s terrific, career-topping performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.