The Safdie brothers continue their streak of blending pastiche with mind-cracking abandon while Adam Sandler gives it his all.
Just how much can a movie push your buttons before you shut down? How much screaming, arrogance, and impatience can it depict while refusing to even acknowledge any sort of moral core before it—just like its protagonist—ends up a shout into the void? Most filmmakers like to put a version of themselves into their movies, but Josh & Benny Safdie go by a different accord.
Take a type of movie. Grind it down to its most basic parts, then coat it with mirrors until it fractals into psychosis. Glide between pastiche and starved, youthful energy, and then edit it until each jagged piece slides into a whole. Take that, squeeze a diamond out of it, and then leave the soot around the edges. Now you’ve got a main character in the form of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Do it all again to a bigger extent and now you’ve got Uncut Gems. Both are imperfect, but as unit and vessel, they’re tailor-made for each other.
He’s the kind of guy who wants to be a Scorsese character yet somehow managed to make it. He’s scrounging to keep up his act, sure, but he’s making it all the same. He bets on sports; he cheats on his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel). He sleeps with his jewelry associate and mistress, Julia (Julia Fox); he flaunts his winnings to his son, Beni (Jacob Igielski). Everything is a means to an end for him, and if he has to rip off some impoverished miners in the Third World to further his success, so be it.
His latest conquest is an Ethiopian black opal that he snatched up for $100,000 with the intention of selling off for $1 million. It’s as dirty as it is lustrous, a fitting MacGuffin for the movie. It’s also a constant reminder of the arbitrariness at the center of it all. All of this for a rock? the Safdies seem to laugh about at points. Contrarily, their filmmaking is anything but haphazard, with the pair closely attuned to Howard’s brand of internal logic that flips between amusing and futile. Even if the script isn’t capital-D Deep, it cares about how it chases its own tail.
The ingredients are all there. It’s the flavor, though, that keeps it running. Darius Khondji (Amour) has an attention to grain and depth, which takes Howard’s comparatively insipid quest and forces a professionalism upon it. If anything is ersatz here, it’s the use of neon and strobe effects that, in short bursts, scrape off the grit to remind audiences of the plastic that lies beneath.
The editing from Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie, on the other hand, feels like it’s on the verge of catching fire at times, blending the directors’ coverage into what shouldn’t work. It does, however, and it makes for a cacophony so specific that its planning has to be commended. The script from Bronstein & the Safdies can take too many detours in the first half and its 2012 setting doesn’t provide many layers thematically, but when it has its eyes on the prize, it runs for it.
Both [the character and the movie] are imperfect, but as unit and vessel, they’re tailor-made for each other.
But there is one prize that’s onscreen the whole time, and that’s Sandler’s performance. His neuroses, his swagger, the insecurities beneath the bling—they all bubble up more than a few times each, grounding what could have played solely as pastiche. There’s a very specific talent required to make such an obnoxious character watchable, and it’s a great role to remind audiences of his talents that, for whatever reason, only get plumbed about once every 10 years.
It speaks to the synchronicity of Uncut Gems, too. It’s a bit too baggy at 135 minutes and the first third could have been tightened, but for all its flaws, it’s like that million-dollar rock. It’s wobbly and looks like it could crack at any moment, and that’s part of its charm. It also shines, and when it does, it shines blindingly bright.
Uncut Gems is currently taking its bets in limited release and goes nationwide on Christmas Day.