Insofar as they tend to involve him yelling at someone in what may or may not be a questionable accent, most Adam Sandler movies are loud. But they’re not loud like Uncut Gems. Everyone in the film is talking over one another, just wall-to-wall shouting and arguing and haggling, often in cramped spaces with the camera jittering around wildly. Things are always happening. The film’s striking poster, which features a grayscale beat-up Sandler against a wider black abyss, doesn’t tell you the half of it. Sandler’s character Howard Ratner is a cyclone force all his own that’s smashing into everything else for the film’s runrime. It’s bedlam.
Based in New York City’s Diamond District, Howard is a jeweler without an off switch, a compulsive gambler whose motormouthed cajoling bleeds into his personal life. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), does not seem to be exaggerating when she calls him the most annoying person she’s ever met — she looks at him with a combined weariness and escalating disgust, having agreed to divorce him after Passover. He’s having an affair with Julia (Julia Fox), his much-younger employee who stays at the NYC apartment he keeps separately from the family home. He squabbles with his bookie, his other employees, and the guys at the shop where he pawns clients’ collateral to fund further bets. He’s in deep with Arno (Eric Bogosian), his brother-in-law and a loan shark who’s hired several refrigerator-sized goons to straighten Howard out.
Howard is not, in other words, a traditionally likable character as he goes about trying to settle his debts and sell a black opal smuggled into the country from Ethiopia. With the veneers, the goatee, the glasses, and the particularly gaudy fashion sense, Sandler is made up to look faintly grotesque. But despite everything, you can’t help but kind of root for Howard. Uncut Gems provides a chaotic window into a life of persistent hustle, into one man’s single-minded attempt to get his, regardless of whatever self-made problems crop up in his wake. In equal measure, it is thrilling, funny, and horrifying as it pulls open a compartment to show you the gears of ethical compromise under capitalism.
Uncut Gems is a further escalation from directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s previous film, Good Time, another stressful New York thriller with distribution by A24 and a soundtrack by electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never. Starring Robert Pattinson as forceful, charismatic hoodlum Connie, it’s a good introduction to the brothers’ specific brand of tension. In an early scene, after Connie robs a bank with his developmentally disabled brother Nicky (Benny Safdie), a red dye pack explodes and they stumble into a staff-only restaurant bathroom to wash it off, an employee pounding on the door all the while. The filmmakers are enamored with fast-talkers of frequently dubious morals — their debut film as a directing pair, Daddy Longlegs, is partially based on their father.
Their casts are frequently populated by first-time actors, who bring their own experiences to the table — Heaven Knows What is based on the life of lead Arielle Holmes, who one of the brothers found panhandling. Buddy Duress made his debut in that film, and one of his scrapes with the law forms the basis of a flashback in Good Time. If some of the plot developments get a little convenient or showy, the accompanying realism keeps it all balanced out, the recognizable faces contrasted with people who rarely get put in wide-release films.
As the Safdies work their way up to larger budgets with Uncut Gems (which still, nonetheless, came in under the budget ceiling to qualify for the Independent Spirit Awards), they haven’t lost sight of that specificity. The film is a meticulous patchwork of personalities and experiences; the backgrounds of the characters are deeply felt, whether they’re even spoken or not. As Arno, Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) uses his big, watery eyes to sell an inner turmoil that evolves from white-hot fury to outright pity, while getting to shout things like, “I heard you resurfaced your fucking swimming pool. Do you know how that makes me feel?”
In her film debut, Julia Fox adds a mask of complexity and sly accommodation, chuckling believably yet not too believably at the men who come onto her, to what might have been a one-note character. Keith Williams Richards, another first-timer, brings an utterly convincing menace to one of the most volatile, intimidating henchmen in recent movie history. Even the auction house receptionist (Hailey Gates) is great for being so visibly, passive-aggressively fed up with Howard.
Rather than just serving as obstacles in Howard’s path or functions of the plot, the characters of Uncut Gems feel lived-in. Kevin Garnett, who plays himself circa 2012 for the Boston Celtics, seems to inhabit a parallel film of his own. In his fervent devotion to getting the opal Howard dangles in front of him, Garnett (who Howard exclusively calls “K.G.”) is both superstitious and flustered by the mind games. And near the end, he’s the other half of one of the film’s most pivotal scenes as he voices its overarching concerns: the exploitation of workers, the justification of that exploitation, and the way it may, in a cosmic sense, come back to get you in the end. It’s not just a fun cameo; it’s a real, impressive performance.
Turn That Frown
With a POV that’s at once big-picture and laser-focused, Uncut Gems most directly recalls Frownland. That film (which is at the moment only available on the Criterion Channel) was the directorial debut of Ronald Bronstein, who went on to star in the Safdies’ Daddy Longlegs and has worked with the brothers as co-writer and co-editor on all their films since. With its uncomfortable closeups and unvarnished anxiety, Frownland positively revels in discomfort without any more broadly-appealing thriller plotline. Its stress is not from suspense but from how the characters behave; where its deeply pitiful protagonist, the suffocatingly inarticulate Keith (Dore Mann), is concerned, it essentially holds your eyelids open and forces you to watch.
In his scheming, his apologizing, and his complete inability to express himself along with the contempt that failure induces in others, you come to hate Keith. And then, you come around to pity him a little, and root for him a little bit while you’re hating him; you stare long enough to see something within him, something universal. When the perspective shifts to his self-absorbed roommate, who describes Keith as a “burbling troll” in a candlelight argument (the electricity has been shut off), you get a look at the wider world around the characters. Your understanding evolves. In its cacophonous delirium, Frownland is like a monster movie. It’s like the first King Kong, except instead of everyone screaming bloody murder until they’re silenced by sudden death, they all just have social anxiety and don’t ever shut up.
Uncut Gems achieves a similar elemental nightmare, albeit one that’s more accessible through the thriller plotline and the POV of Sandler’s Howard. We watch Howard the desperate soul, Howard the volatile liability, Howard the family man, Howard the guy who breaks down into tears when confronted with an ass tattoo. And through that exposure, by essentially being handcuffed to this man who is in nearly every scene of the film, we grow into a kind of partner. We’re along for the ride, even caught up in the thrill. Locked in a room for hours near the end of the film, Arno eventually comes around to Howard, as though holding a funhouse mirror to the audience’s own relationship with the character. He’s Keith if we didn’t inherently despise Keith.
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In a way, that’s the trick of casting Adam Sandler, whose shaggy likability tends to ground even some of his most intolerable films. His acting capability has long been proven, to the point where the question has changed: it’s no longer “can he do drama?” so much as “does he even want to?” Sandler’s other film this year, the generically-titled Netflix comedy Murder Mystery, is another of his monetized vacations, a minimum-effort comedy at some picturesque locale whose amusing moments make its tossed-off nature more irritating. You can see what it could’ve been if anyone really tried.
But really, can you blame the guy? By Netflix’s own (perhaps dubious) estimation, it was the service’s single most-watched program of 2019. When you don’t really have to do the work, why would you want to? In an age of blockbusters that vapidly, cynically monetize diversity and social critique, at least you can begrudgingly appreciate Sandler’s honesty.
Yet time and time again, the acting bug seems to bite Adam Sandler, whether out of restlessness or a simple desire for praise. Punch-Drunk Love kicked off the whole will-he/won’t-he dramatic arc of Sandler’s career, while the Judd Apatow dramedy Funny People directly ribs the actor’s own legacy of a noticeably low-effort filmography. He drew acclaim for The Meyerowitz Stories, and he’s even pretty good in Reign Over Me, a movie that is otherwise about playing Shadow of the Colossus to cope with 9/11. In his dramatic roles, Sandler becomes an unlikely avatar of rage and anxiety, as though taking whatever transcendental slacker relatability makes him such a broadly-appealing star and then funneling it into something specific, dark, and wounded.
Without necessarily retreading past performances, Sandler gives a similar vibe to Howard, whose charisma only seems to fuel his gambling addiction — in one scene, as he attempts to justify his actions, he essentially talks himself into making another bet. Howard’s apparent comfort masks a deep chasm of insecurity. He needs to pettily assert himself to those who’ll listen, whether it’s trying to reclaim a relationship, berating a driver, or picking a fight with The Weeknd, and that insecurity is what’s so inherently destructive. It’s impossible to imagine Howard sitting still, having hit it big. There is only the pursuit of more, even when it means risking what he already has. He needs to make his mark, and after that he needs to make it deeper.
Howard has a sickness beyond the gambling addiction, that’s true of the entire world. The film’s first scene is not in Howard’s POV but in Ethiopia, detailing the finding of the gem that eventually causes so much havoc. Here is where it begins: the cycle of consumption. The compulsive acquisition of stuff and status. Bronstein and the Safdies show us the allure of the lifestyle, yet keep an eye on the consequences. This world eats people.