starring Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch
screenplay by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie
directed by Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
by Walter Chaw Enfants terrible Josh and Bennie Safdie follow-up their kinetic crime thriller Good Time with Uncut Gems, another helping of the same packed with so much anxiety and energy that it becomes exhausting a good while before it's done with you. Opening in an Ethiopian opal mine, where a huge-karated black specimen is unearthed in secret by subsistence miners while one of their compatriots wails in agony over a nasty open fracture in his leg, Uncut Gems then cuts to diamond dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) getting a colonoscopy. When not having the inside of his bowels photographed, he's ensconced in his little retail hole in New York's Diamond District, doing his best to fend off an endless wave of creditors while looking for that one big score. In a recent (i.e., February, 2019) article in INTERVIEW, Patrick McGraw memorably describes that stretch of West 47th between 5th and 6th avenues as "...a composite of fake teeth, cheap cologne, aviators, dyed hair, machismo, self-loathing, and seemingly uncontrollable gesticulating"--a good description of Howard, too, as it happens, as Sandler finally finds a dramatic role the equal now of his finest hour, Punch-Drunk Love. Howard is not unlike Barry, the role he played in P.T. Anderson's film--if Barry had no success managing his sudden fits of manic rage.
The marvel of Uncut Gems is how long it maintains its series of reversals and surprises. Nothing you expect will happen happens, or at least it seldom happens the way you expect. It's that rarity of a film that believes it's smarter than you and then proves it, reminding in every way that counts of Matteo Garrone's underseen Dogman: a crime movie that's seen enough crime movies. Its portrait of compulsive personalities is extraordinary, aided by Sandler's empathy for Howard's growing frustration. It's easy to trainspot the myriad ways in which the horrors of Howard's life are Howard's fault, but the feeling of being betrayed, humiliated, and disappointed provide broad justification--if only entirely satisfying for Howard--for his actions. Howard isn't exactly likeable, but as with any good noir protagonist in the pressure-cooker, you want things to work out for him anyway. The film doesn't work without Sandler, and in it he finds the perfect vehicle for his unctuous, aggressive, yet somehow still ingratiating persona.
I love a moment at a Passover dinner where Howard reads the ritual, listing off the Biblical plagues in English as his grandmother reads them off in Yiddish. In its relative calm, this scene suggests the antithesis of the rest of the film--but running under and through it is our understanding that a half-dozen people want to kill Howard, that he's forgotten a couple of vital errands for his endless scheming to work, that his wife hates him and is leaving him, that he's probably has earned a few more beatings, and that all of these people here who love him (Judd Hirsch is magnificent in a small role as Howard's father) have been hurt by Howard's actions and will be again if they're not careful. Uncut Gems is a layered--multifaceted, let's go ahead and call it--beast that works as any number of things. Even the titular reference to the film's MacGuffin functions on multiple levels as a sly joke about its own episodic structure, about the bris, about potential and the teasing out of it that is Howard's stock in trade. By weaving in a subplot about the cult of professional sports in the United States, the movie becomes an involved conversation, and catalyst for the same, about how money destroys everything. If it's a warning, alas, it comes too late. Uncut Gems is the truth: the story of the world told feral and dangerous. You could be right about everything and still be dead. God is in His heaven. We're all alone down here.