Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) owns KMH, a jewelry store in New York City’s diamond district. Howard’s marriage is rocky, partially because of his mistress, KMH’s Julia (Julia Fox), but also because of the danger brought on by his gambling debts. He has a colleague, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who brings him special clientele like the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, who becomes unduly attached to the raw black African opal Howard had hoped to make a killing with at an auction of “Uncut Gems.”
Cowriter (with Ronald Bronstein)/directors Benny & Josh Safdie’s ("Good Time") high energy NYC based films have been getting more and more assured. Their latest, which has been on their back burner since their first, may be unlike anything you’ve experienced, as if the helicopter sequence in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” were extended to feature film length. The film is both exhausting and anxiety provoking to watch, a relentless visual and aural assault, but the filmmaking brothers and their star Sandler plunge us into the mind of a hyperactive hustler so effectively, one simply must acknowledge their brilliance even if the experience isn’t exactly enjoyable. Be prepared to strap yourself onto a cinematic rocket.
The film begins with a bold motif that has us traveling through the figurative bowels of an African opal mine and the literal bowels of our protagonist. The mined prize, which Howard has valued at $1 million, holds a mystical power for both those who find it and Garnett. The Celtics player clearly views it as some kind of talisman and is annoyed to learn Howard showed it to him with no intention of selling. So in his first of many bad decisions, Howard agrees to let the man take it overnight, securing it with Garnett’s championship ring - which he immediately pawns to pay down a gambling debt and make another, assured his opal will bring Garnett good juju on the court that night.
Howard’s got to keep the auction house awaiting his opal at bay, owes his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian) hundreds of thousands and has two vicious thugs on his tail who show up at his daughter’s school play and lock him into his own car trunk. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), has stopped being amused long ago. A trip downtown to a private event headlined by The Weeknd causes a rift with Julia and Howard has such a hell of a time getting that opal back he forgets to buy back that ring.
The Safdie brothers have created a narrative Rube Goldberg machine in multiple dimensions, their protagonist keeping so many balls in the air we hold our breath waiting for them to rain down upon him. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s darting camera keeps us on edge, at one point literally as Howard keeps his gambit going by leaning out an upper floor window to pass cash to Julia in another room as he’s being cornered. Daniel Lopatin’s score is nerve shredding, high in the mix during the film’s opening scenes, adding to the general unease.
Yet through all this we cannot help but root for Howard, Sandler’s performance such a high wire balance of charisma and crazy we see the good guy spinning within his own adrenaline addiction. His fast talking, constant movement toward the ultimate win may have blurred his priorities, but as with most Sandler characters, his good heart shines through. Support ranges from professional actors like Judd Hirsch to newcomers like Garnett and other non actors, all meshing together realistically within the world the Safdies have created. Keep an eye on Julia Fox, who makes a strong impression here as Howard’s lovable lovely, tested for her loyalty and in the end, the only one to have his back.
“Uncut Gems” is a rarity, a film unlike anything you’ve likely seen before and one of the very best of 2019. (If you are wondering why a diamond dealer’s travails revolve around an opal, per the Safdies, an opal is called “the gamblers gem,” and is a more elusive stone to pin down.)
Robin gives "Uncut Gems" a B+.
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