When people hear the name Adam Sandler, they think one of two things: most of the time, it’s “washed up SNL hack that makes films for profit.” Other times, however, it’s “brilliant, dramedy auteur that has been in some of the best movies of the past 20 years.” “Uncut Gems,” the sixth film by Joshua and Benny Safdie, falls into that latter category. It is not only a film where he shines, but it is also arguably the best movie of last year.
The best way to describe the style of the Safdie brothers is that they engage in a practice that I like to call “anxiety filmmaking,” in that every single aspect of their films is designed to induce anxiety and dread, usually leading up to some kind of cathartic payoff.
In their movies, the world is wound up in an ugly kind of tension burying you in brick, concrete and neon. The cameras are uncomfortably close to the face of the actors, documenting every pore and wrinkle on their skin as their lives crumble apart. Harsh, yet hypnotic synth-driven scores dominate the soundscape of their movies, drawing you in, but unnerving you. Dialogue is often shouted and argued, with characters verbally tripping up one another, desperately trying to get a word in edgewise.
It’s controlled chaos shot in 35mm of film. Out of all the movies I’ve ever seen, the Safdies come the closest to emulating the absurd anarchy of reality.
Moving on to the movie, “Uncut Gems” stars Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jeweler in New York’s Diamond District with a crippling gambling addiction and a miserable domestic life. He receives an uncut, Ethiopian black opal, which he plans to auction off for roughly $1 million dollars as a way to cover his gambling debts.
However, his plan goes awry as Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (as himself) convinces Ratner to let him have it as a good luck charm for the 2012 NBA playoffs. When Garnett doesn’t return the opal, it’s a race against the clock for Ratner to retrieve the gem, pay off his debts and save his marriage.
“Uncut Gems” is a movie with a lot of moving parts and characters to it, and the Safdies manage to expertly juggle every single plot point and person, forming a watertight narrative. The supporting cast is absolutely stellar, staring Idina Menzel as Howard’s wife, Dinah, Julia Fox as his loyal mistress, Julia, Lakeith Stanfield as his beleaguered employee, Demany, and Eric Bogosian as Arno, the leader of the loan sharks. All of these actors and actresses are perfectly casted and bring in their A-game, enhancing the bleak and nervous tone of the film.
Garnett himself proves to be one of the best actors in the movie, conveying his religious awe at the mystic and seemingly real power of the opal, and his frustrations at Howard’s ceaseless mind games and bullsh*t. His performance was a pleasant surprise, considering that this is his first film.
However, Sandler himself is an absolute scene stealer. He brings in a perfect blend of sleaze, neuroticism, empathy and charm to Howie, making an unlikeable character on paper come to life on the silver screen. Howie’s a pathetic slime ball, and yet the way Sandler and the Safdies frame his struggles, you begin to feel bad for him. He comes off as a person who desperately tries to do the right thing, like fixing his home-life and paying his debts back in full.
Yet, he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s his own worst enemy as he betrays his loved ones and makes increasingly risky and stupid gambles, despite owing nearly a hundred thousand dollars to the loan sharks. Sandler, as Howie, is a powerhouse of a performer, and I feel like only the Safdies could have brought his talent out like this.
And of course, all I said before about the Safdie’s style applies to Uncut Gems in an incredibly bold way. The arguments between Howard and company are always exhilarating and electrifying. They drip with potential and kinetic energy, making you worry that these verbal sparring matches will turn physical. The score by Daniel Lopatin (better known as Oneohtrix Point Never) isn’t as harsh as his previous work on the Safdie’s fifth film, “Good Time,” but is glitzy, glamorous and is prone to harrowing interludes. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing a gaudy and grimy New York City fitting for our characters.
“Uncut Gems” is ultimately a movie about squandered potential. Every character in the movie has the capability to be an incredible person, yet are hampered by their desires, who they surrounded themselves with, their behavior and their dead-end professions. When we, the characters, and by extension, the actors look into that uncut opal, and see its inner beauty confined by rough stone, it looks back at all of us and sees our own beauty, and our own potential. It’s up to you to use it.
It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful. It’s violent. It’s graceful. It’s chaotic. It’s meditative. It’s the best movie of last year. It’s “Uncut Gems.” See it while you can.