Benny and Josh Safdie, two East Coast filmmaking siblings, could promote themselves as New York City tour guides given their scenic cinema stylings. For how much Good Time relies on Robert Pattinson’s stoner sprint through borough underworlds, Uncut Gems is a jagged tumble into Manhattan’s jewelry district. A film that’s perpetual pandemonium in the thickest “Jewish but Staten Island” accent, the Safdie brothers prove once again adept at achieving tension and anxiety you’d feel waiting at the dentist’s office for two hours before oral surgery – and I mean that as a compliment. Starring Adam Sandler as a no-luck, conniving diamond hawker, no less?
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is always targeting the deal of his hard-knocks life. Be it sports betting or importing rare opal gemstones from “Ethiopian Jews,” Howard is a man who has everything based on perception, yet reality proves different. He owes Arno (Eric Bogosian) a debt that brings thuggish loan sharks to his shop’s doorstep, wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) can’t stand his unfaithful, secretary-humping existence (Julia Fox his mistress), and Kevin Garnett – yes, that Kevin Garnett – just hijacked his precious opal before it’s to be auctioned for a supposed million dollars. Howard is the quintessential unlucky guy who can’t seem to understand the common denominator in all his problems: himself.
A24 will release Uncut Gems on December 25th, 2019, just in time for…Christmas? Those of you not celebrating around tinsel-draped evergreens, here are three reasons to spend your holidays watching the Safdie brothers abuse the piss out of Adam Sandler.
1. The Sandman Cometh
If you’ve been waiting patiently for Adam Sandler to break from contracted Netflix comedies for a hot second, Uncut Gems has a Punch Drunk Love-levels great Sandler cursing his way through self-inflicted punishment. No slapstick, just literal slaps from wiseguy goons who leave “Howie” with another black eye. Sandler operates as an architect of his own undoing, which is a tremendous look on the downtrodden, defeated dreamer who consistently tempts fate. Howard always hustles, chasing scores that beat systems (bookies, industry standards), yet only digs himself deeper as any escape from his proverbial hole moves farther and farther from the surface. Frustration and hope are Howie’s tangled language, as Sandler so desperately keeps us wincing through performative masochism via professional aspirations.
The Safdie brothers never intend to make you feel empathy towards Howard, or at least in my reading of Uncut Gems. Sandler’s at his best when obsessed with an opal cluster that contains prismatic universes when glared through, even when his business partner – just beaten by thugs – is demanding his attention. One lewd comment later, breaking his stone-fixated hypnosis, and Howard asserts himself as the forever shyster. I equally adore Julia Fox as Howard’s pampered arm candy and Idina Menzel as his no-bullshit almost-ex, but their performances highlight Sandler’s greater chemistry. Howard never comprehends how he’s pushing everyone away, and karma doesn’t turn a blind eye forever. Sandler plays the victim so well, to the point where you almost forget he’s his own worst enemy. Almost.
2. The New York State Of Mania
As a former New York City resident of over six years, Uncut Gems is a chaotic slice of greasy nostalgia. You can practically smell the aroma of roasted nuts wafting from vendors as Howard scampers another city block, always scheming his next grift. The Safdies key into the Big Apple’s constant state of disarray and status-chasing in a way that translates into Howard’s exhausting approach to life. Cinematography never takes a break, full of tight and shaky handheld shots, nor do the characters who become entangled in Howard’s sticky business. It’s distressing, blow after blow dealt unto Howard’s life, in a way that’ll make the most nervous viewers chew their nails to each cuticle.
Uncut Gems is a film that hammers momentum into tension and opportunity into despair. In a city that can eat you alive, Howard screams “Why not me!” at the top of his lungs while dumping another $20K on Celtics money lines. An urban jungle where dreamers climb, studded with glistening bedazzlement like the Furby necklaces Howard tries to push on celebrity clientele even though his gaudy style’s gone out of fashion. All the intricacies of streetwalking schmucks to loudmouth, self-important pricks ruling 47th Street between 5th and 6th Ave gives the Safdie brothers an advantage as they don’t need to embellish – a natural ecosystem that glistens and stinks of raw sewage.
3. A Cast Of Memorable Characters
Name one movie where you can watch Adam Sandler attend a private The Weekend concert right before LaKeith Stanfield is about to make a got’dang scene? Or where Kevin Garnett, playing himself, becomes spiritually bonded to Sandler’s precious treasure and hightails it with Sandler furiously in pursuit? Idina Menzel’s stony and merciless disregard for Sandler’s soon-to-be-divorced schmoozer is so fiercely entertaining in the same way Julia Fox’s “Let momma take care of daddy!” eyelash-fluttering scores the actress a memorable breakout role. I’ll be honest, Garnett deserves credit for stepping onto Hollywood hardwood like “I see you in Trainwreck LeBron, but you ain’t the only NBA star who can act these days.” He is the film’s undersung MVP as, yes, his ballplaying is integral to the Safdies’ plot.
No, Uncut Gems is not a feel-good movie. It’s a commentary on inward self-pitying despite outwardly sealing one’s fate. Play in trash all day and you’re going to smell like it, but then to complain about said stench? Everyone’s looking for their claim to fame, that golden ticket worth overnight millions, yet the Safdie brothers don’t shy away from a character study about those who’re willing to sacrifice everything for instant relief while convinced they won’t lose a cent. You will squirm, you will hurt, and you’ll respect the hell out of Adam Sandler’s ability to bring the worst out of his surrounding actors in the best possible way. It’s not a Safdie brothers movie unless you’re grasping for a brown paper bag while feeling more uncomfortable than when Aunt Barb questions your non-existent relationship prospects around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Uncut Gems hits theaters on Christmas Day.