It’s May 2012 and Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has a problem. Okay, on the surface of it, he has a lot of problems: his once-booming jewelry business in Manhattan’s legendary Diamond District is disintegrating, his mistress (Julia Fox) is needy and flaky, he’s deeply in hock to the seemingly-shadowy Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose goons Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik) relentlessly harass him, his relationship with his children is nominal, he’s on borrowed time with his wife (Idina Menzel), and he just can’t stop gambling his cash away even has he’s pawning more and more of his – and others’ – possessions. So already it’s pretty clear that all of Howard Ratner’s many problems boil down to one, big problem, and that’s Howard Ratner.
But Howard’s gonna fix it all. It’s all falling into place for Howard because two really big things just walked into his store. One of them is a massive, enchanting black opal, smuggled to him out of Ethiopia and delivered in the gut of a fish, and, if Howard’s right, worth a million dollars; the other is NBA legend Kevin Garnett, whose Celtics locked in a heated playoff battle against the Sixers. Howard’s gonna sell KG that opal, bet big on Boston, and finally get everything all squared away. For sure.
Josh and Bennie Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a lot of things. This film is going to draw a lot of comparisons with the Coen brothers, and there are too many parallels for that not to be a worthwhile exercise. But in its fascination with the abstract and otherworldly in its imagery, its reliance on ‘80s-esque synth-and-sax music, and its refusal to follow generic conventions and borders, it feels more than a little inspired by Panos Cosmotos. Uncut Gems isn’t Mandy – nothing is – but it’s got as much of that in it as Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men.
Easily one of the best things about Uncut Gems are its uniformly amazing performances. Sandler will, deservedly, get credit here, relishing a role he was born to play. Never once in well over two hours of a movie that is, essentially, a master class in watching somebody destroy their life beyond recognition, do we have a flicker of doubt that this is exactly what Howard has to do, that he is driven to do this. But don’t sleep on Menzel’s bubbling rage, Bogosian’s crumbling confidence, and fabulous bit-part home runs from Judd Hirsch, The Weeknd (seriously), Wayne Diamond (incredible), and, yes, Garnett himself, whose exasperation with the world of scheming clowns into which he has somehow stumbled is a high point every time he’s on screen.
Uncut Gems also weaves incredible scenes, strung-out long takes, and disorientating angles layered over a wild soundscape. It makes bold choices, including the very way it introduces us to Howard (and mirrors that shot as the film wraps). It never lays out its cards clearly, with no pat exposition, few soliloquies, and a frantic pace leaving us to figure out who’s doing what and why, and what it all means. It also can’t differentiate between exhilarating and exhausting, moves between tones so jarringly you feel whiplashed, and badly, badly needed to be edited down to a crisp 95 minutes. By the time Uncut Gems slams into its ever-so-brief denouement I’d imagine most viewers are going feel drained, bordering on assailed. Appropriately, for a movie cannily set over Pesach, the audience will be left with a distinct sensation of dayenu.
And yet. In its steadfast refusal to insult it’s audience’s intelligence or the integrity of its characters, in its commitment to its aesthetic, and in the layers of meaning it folds beautifully into its brutal closing moments, Uncut Gems is absolutely doing something, and doing it with conviction, and doing it well enough that it merits no small respect. Trite to say it, but Uncut Gems is, like it’s pun-upon-pun title, itself an uncut gem – and I’d rather stare deeply into the layers of a raw, mesmerizing rarity than slide off the surface of yet another flawless, empty cubic zirconia. Uncut Gems is a lot of things, but it’s definitely not a theme park, and amen for that.