Directed by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie. Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, LaKeith Stanfield. Runtime: 2h 15 min. Released: December 25, 2019.
Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems is the type of film that will stick in your mind for awhile. Their gem of a film follows New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a compulsive gambler always on the lookout for the next big score, as he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could be the win of a lifetime. This happens as his life crumbles around him and he’s pursued by those he owes.
Adam Sandler shows once again how strong he can be as an actor when he stops making vacation comedies with his friends. He absolutely shines as Howard. He makes the audience root for him and root for his life going the right way, as Howard is his own worst enemy. He makes bets that he really shouldn’t as villains like Arno (Eric Bogosian) come after money that they’re owed. Howard digs the hole himself and buries himself into this situation, but Sandler plays the role so well that it seems like Howard could talk himself out of most things.
Sandler brings a charisma and likability to Howard, even though he’s a dick and he’s constantly shouting and swearing (this film apparently has the fourth most F-bombs in a film). You empathize with Howard while thinking he’s just making the stupidest decisions, and I think that’s the most important aspect here.
Howard’s world is crashing around him as he loses his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), because he fell in love with Julia (a great Julia Fox). Sandler plays this side well, too, and he has a couple of great scenes to showcase his acting. He’s consistently strong throughout, and the characters around Howard complement the story so well.
LaKeith Stanfield has a good role here as Demany, one of Howard’s colleagues who uses his connections to bring high-rollers to Howard’s store. Demany brings one of the film’s most surprising and interesting characters, former NBA star Kevin Garnett, into the film. Garnett takes an interest into one of Howard’s most expensive pieces and this drives the story.
I don’t want to spoil too much but the way writers Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein bring these characters into a real-life event gives the film such a cool real-world quality that they showed off well in their third film Good Times. These characters feel like they’re entrenched in a true story and that makes it more unpredictable and stressful.
And boy, the cinematography by Darius Khondji and direction by the Safdie brothers really make this one of the most anxious, frantic films I’ve seen in awhile. My heart was racing multiple times through this, and this is also made most possible by Sandler’s performance and his character’s decisions. Every decision that Howard could make is usually wrong, but the writing feels realistic as we root for him to win and it’s also realistic because of his compulsive behaviour.
A character like this can be unlikable because of his self-destruction (think 2014’s The Gambler). The decisions in that film feel empty. Here, Howard is making these decisions for a win where the bets make sense. The self-destruction is clearly on display but Sandler plays the character so well, and the writing here is going to keep this on my mind for a long time.
The Safdie brothers trap you in this film with Howard’s decisions and his situation, and they do so in such an effective way where that makes it stressful. The highs of his film feel raw, though there aren’t many highs because everything in Howard’s life never goes right (as he sobs and says in one scene), but Howard’s journey is strikingly written and intense.
There should be a warning for people with anxiety or something because it really does get that intense. I’d revisit this stress because the feeling watching this film is incomparable. And that’s because it’s stunning filmmaking and the atmosphere, story and character created here are as alluring as the opal in the film.