Uncut Gems

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

6 Responses to “Uncut Gems”

  1. 1st half. Did not like. Soundtrack was awful and too much noise. I was lost. 2nd half was better, but I can’t like a movie where everyone is so nasty. Nobody too root for. Towards the end, I actually saw something good happen, then taken away. 2 stars for the 2nd half.

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  2. I’m glad you liked it. I am debating whether to see it or not. Like Ruben above, if there’s no one to root for, if everyone is nasty, then it will be hard for me to stay the duration.

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  3. I have read such mixed reviews of this…

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    • It delves into an unpleasant atmosphere so I can see where some people might not enjoy it. It wallows in the same seedy New York atmosphere as Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy but with a lot more swearing.

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