“I think you are the most annoying person on the planet,” someone remarks to Howard Ratner, a madly obnoxious wheeler-dealer in New York’s diamond district. The question immediately becomes whether this frantic, sweaty, manic, disorganized, unreliable and frequently desperate middle-aged man will emerge as a figure of revulsion or fascination to the audience. It’s thus a tribute to writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie and Adam Sandler, who plays the part, that Uncut Gems emerges as a real gem itself, a sparkling comedy-drama about a compulsive gambler and risk-taker who never knows when to quit. Many will agree that this is Sandler’s best performance, and the Safdies will finally move from the fringes of the commercial film scene to somewhere closer to the center.
This is not because the Safdies have made a lovable movie — far from it. From the beginning, in a prolonged and intense scene in Howard’s 47th Street-area jewelry shop, the yelling and haggling and confrontational behavior is monumental; it’s possible to feel that this is the last place on Earth you’d want to be.
A career high for Sandler and the Safdies.
On the other hand, some people get off on this, and for Howard it’s the core of his existence. In a brief Ethiopian-set prologue, a football-sized piece of rock is extracted from a mine, and numerous embedded gems are clearly of significant value. Having just acquired it and against his better instincts, Howard lets one of his most valued customers, basketball titan Kevin Garnett, borrow the piece, a misjudgment that sets in motion no end of crises and misfortune.
The Safdies plunge the audience into the deep end of this world, and it’s easy to be both overwhelmed and seriously put off by the vulgarity of it; everyone is brash, it’s the norm for promises and expectations not to be met, feverish yelling is the accepted mode of communication and no day is complete without a new unwelcome incident.
Of course, Howard doesn’t get his valued piece of rock back when he expects it, and this is just the beginning of promises not met, debts remaining unpaid, lies mounting to cover the shortcomings and everyone becoming angrier and angrier. For his part, however, Howard nearly always has an angle, another card to play — what’s a new day without a fresh fire to put out?
The writers have concocted any number of outrageous incidents that, in fact, feel real and not gags invented just to be toppers. What should be a calm night out for the Ratner family on the occasion of a school theater presentation morphs into an insane set of events that finds Howard locked nude in the trunk of a car. His wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who well knows how to deal with her husband, is naturally furious.
Of course, Howard has a woman on the side, Julia (Julia Fox), a nice young lady who — what else? — works at his jewelry store and for whom he provides an apartment. This relationship hits the rocks during this period when Howard is sweating over basketball scores he’s bet big on and whether or not he’ll ever get the big gem back. Uncut Gems would need to be on any final list of films in which the greatest percentage of dialogue is yelled.
And yet the Safdies and the cast go deep enough here to make the film a genuinely human one; it may not be a lifestyle that most people will recognize, but the dynamics and desires and anxieties all feel real, thanks to the way the writer-directors push through the obvious dramatic trappings to tap into credible feelings.
This is also true of the entire cast top to bottom, but the way is led by Sandler. Howard’s passions for business, money, gambling, women and sports are entirely normal, but he doesn’t seem to have learned much about his own shortcomings over the years. Sandler’s performance shows that time may have provided him peeks at the errors of his ways, but the fact that he’s continued to get away with things gives him the confidence to carry on, without lessons learned. It’s a helluva part, and Sandler aces it.
As his woman on the side, Fox at first seems destined to remain the mere victim of her boss/lover’s abuse and inattention, but the performance slowly opens like a flower in a beautiful way that one doesn’t expect. There’s not an actor in the cast who doesn’t deliver work that’s boisterous and full-bodied, and that includes baller Garnett, who, in addition to his numerous scenes, is glimpsed in games on TV.
New York area locations provide great and varied backgrounds and Darius Khondji’s cinematography vividly evokes them in a sharp, naturalistic way. Daniel Lopatin’s big and bold score at times goes a bit over the top to become too noticeable compared to what it accompanies onscreen, but it also properly serves the grandiose schemes and emotions of the characters.
Production company: Elara Pictures
Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Sanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hisch, Keith Williams Richards, Mike Francesa, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher, Abel Tesfaye
Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
Screenwriters: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Sebastian Bear-McClard
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Oscar Boyson, Anthony Katagas, David Koplan
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Miyako Bellizzi
Editors: Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie
Music: Daniel Lopatin
Casting: Jennifer Venditti, Francine Maisler
Venue: Telluride Film Festival