Review- Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems could have been named 2012: A Stress Odyssey. Beginning in Ethiopia and then transporting into New York via a psychedelic intro sequence is an unforgettable journey, one which will put you in the correct frame of mind for the madness that follows.
The Safdie brothers have been making films with this effect for well over a decade but this feels like a quantum leap in their output. 2017’s Good Time lived up to its title and solidified Robert Pattinson as one of the most exciting young actors of this generation, but followed a relatively simple journey through the dark streets of New York on a quest to bail his brother.
Uncut Gems is the opposite, as the Safdies remind the world what an acting tour-de-force Adam Sandler is when harnessing his manic energy towards gasps rather than laughs. The plot twists and turns constantly, a hint that the manic intro foreshadows.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweller who obtains his dream purchase: a black opal still embedded in the rock it was found in AKA the uncut gem. Under pressure of gambling debts, Howard begins to make a series of bizarre sports bets, believing he has an easy million dollars coming with the opal. Along with his mistress Julia Howard, he is determined to make the money he believes he deserves as more and more players become involved including real-life basketball star Kevin Garnett. Convinced of a spiritual connection to the stone Garnett is as desperate to obtain it as Ratner is to make a killing on it.
Howard's religious background provides a fascinating subtext within the film. From the Ethiopian Jewish miners who discover the opal to a hilariously tense Passover dinner with Howard and his brother-in-law/arch-rival Arno, Judaism textures the whole story. Based partially on their own experiences the Safdies integrate it into their narrative splendidly, as they do their deep love of New York City.
Sandler’s performance is extraordinary. The desperate pathos of his role in Punch-Drunk Love can be felt, hidden under layers of delusion and pride. Howard seems to always be too self-absorbed to realize how deep the hole he’s digging is, but somehow remains an incredibly winning presence, his bullshit enthusiasm so infectious that it’s hard not to root for him. With his tiny glasses, fake teeth and gold chains he feels like an SNL character that has been given real life, hilarious yet disastrously human.
This is the root of Julia’s affection for him. Newcomer Julia Fox stuns in a difficult role as Howard’s employee and lover, displaying such an amazingly convincing portrayal of love for such a difficult and weird man. A sexting scene between the two is staged in such a brilliantly humorous yet heart-wrenchingly intimate way, a truly fresh, modern romance.
Kevin Garnett is also remarkable as a man descending into overwhelming annoyance in his dealings with Ratner. Lakeith Steinfeld as always lights up the screen with his easygoing charm, as a reluctant partner and foil in the scheme.
The supporting characters are some of the most unusual and interesting looking people assembled in a film in some time. From fellow jewellers who the directors met by chance, to popular musician The Weeknd playing himself, there’s always a new fascinating individual who crosses path with Howard. Even “Let it Go” songstress Idina Menzel gets to flex as Howard's long-suffering and caustically funny wife. It almost feels like a Coen brothers film as these players are weaved in and out of the breathless narrative, a veritable landscape of amazing faces.
The stunning synth soundtrack helps give the film rhythm whilst also increasing the sense of extreme stress, as arguments escalate and violence creeps in. Good Time composer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) creates an incredible soundscape, a perfect accompaniment to the chaos. The end credits song is a highlight, providing a much-needed laugh after the tension of the magnificent final act.
Visually dazzling, the choice to film on 35mm gives a beautifully textured look, the neon of the Diamond District popping and the phantasmagoric acid trips within the gems are stunning. It's easy to believe Kevin Garnett when he professes a cosmic connection to the black opal. Masterful work from the great Darius Khondji.
Uncut Gems is utterly wonderful, a combination of so many madcap disparate elements that serve to remind how great film can be. Thankfully you don't have to run all over New York's Diamond District looking for an expert when you can appraise it yourself. Have a good time with love from the Safdies.