Life can be a messy, loud, out of control experience, and sometimes that’s just what’s in your head. Add the honking, incessant cacophony of New York City and you’re not getting sleep anytime soon. The Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, understand this all too well, gifting Robert Pattinson with a mesmerizing character in their 2017 feature, Good Time, and now getting the performance of a lifetime out of Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, a blistering, endlessly tense, dread-filled thriller. It almost begs you to give up watching it with its non-stop wall of sound and brutal failings of its main character, Howard Ratner. Stick with it, and you may feel hideous, but no doubt impressed with its ability to find compassion for such a difficult person.
Sandler’s Ratner runs an appointment-only jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District circa 2012. He impulsively gambles, dodges collectors, cheats on his exasperated wife, and stupidly loans out a rare Nigerian gemstone. He does all of this concurrently, roaring at anyone and everyone, bouncing around trying to put out the bonfires that make up his life. Our first image of him shows Howard at the end of his colonoscopy. We literally meet his bowels before we meet the man, suggesting we’re about to know this man inside and out.
The Safdies, along with their co-writer/editor Ronald Bronstein, clearly worship films like Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and perhaps Gasper Noé’s anxiety-filled productions. Uncut Gems folllows Howard relentlessly from one unfortunate circumstance to another. Always right on the verge of big payoff from a successful gamble, Howard’s hubris and non-stop swearing at anybody and everybody, sabotages anything good that could ever occur. He’s a louder, more toxic cousin to Ignacius Reilly from A Confederacy Of Dunces, a man so out of control he gets arrested for just standing in a mall minding his own business.
Howard knows that his rare gem could fetch millions at an upcoming auction, but when his associate Demany (an excellent LaKeith Stanfield) introduces him to his celebrity client, Kevin Garnett, then a star player for the Boston Celtics, he lets Garnett borrow it because he thinks it will bring him luck at the upcoming playoffs. Guys like Howard, however, never win, and nobody knows this better than Howard himself. Sandler understands such self-loathing, never once playing Howard as a sad sack but as a man who’s confidence and bravado mask a person truly hurting inside. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Dinah, a steely perfect Idina Menzel, no longer buys what Howard’s selling. Neither does his teenage daughter, who can barely look up from her phone long enough to put up with his nonsense. His employee/girlfriend Julia, a star making debut for Julia Fox, will seemingly do anything for Howard, but she also has a wandering eye and a hair-trigger temper. She’s fantastic, as is Eric Bogosian as a brutal loan collector whose surprising connection to Howard makes him almost as scary as his frightening henchman, played by Keith Williams Richards.
Like a modern day version of 1917, the film, urgently shot by the great Darius Khondji, relentlessly follows our protagonist through his descent into hell. Daniel Lopatin’s synth-heavy, retro score sounds like somebody playing Flashdance too loudly in the other room, yet it perfectly captures Howard’s fantasy life. He’s a man whose dreams play out better in his head than on the unforgiving streets. It all culminates in a gorgeously sustained third act, which plays out as a doomed hostage situation. Yet, it’s all just a typical day for Howard, who can’t even go to his daughter’s school play without ending up naked in the trunk of his own car. Sandler excels here, especially in a scene where he realizes nothing ever works out for him. Sandler knows this guy with his desperate smile, his strange glasses, his pathetic come-ons and his bottomless well of rage. Sandler and the Safdies understand the male ego, the entitlement, the showy multi-tasking and the sheer loneliness of a guy who can’t catch a break. I don’t think I ever want to run into Howard again, but Sandler has grabbed his place in cinema history by the balls. It’s unfortunate that most people will not want to embrace such a feel-bad-movie, one which would have thrived in the anti-hero 70s cinematic era, but for the brave souls who like to be shaken and stirred, they could do worse than a Safdie brothers film.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Uncut Gems gets a 0 out of 50. Sandler’s character may say “c*cksucker” more times than Pacino’s Hoffa in The Irishman, but this film swims in the world where un-self-aware straight men rule.
By Glenn Gaylord
Uncut Gems is currently playing in U.S. theaters.