James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – Adam Sandler has turned in a fair share of cringe-worthy characters over his 30-year career. His performance in UNCUT GEMS, however, is a diamond in the rough. In Josh and Benny Safdie’s follow-up to their excellent dirty New York crime-comedy GOOD TIME, the sibling directors steer Sandler toward a commanding use of his energy.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a diamond dealer with a jet black goatee and a getup that’s decked out head to toe in Gucci. Howard is a hustler at heart, moving and shaking from one scam to the next in his claustrophobic jewelry shop. Their brand of balmy New York is jittery, depraved, and drives you to the point of delirium, which is bound to disorient the audience. If so, that’s only a side effect to the kinetic energy that Safdie’s can wield.
Howard’s world is an exhausting place to enter. He’s abrasive and always multitasking on three things at once. It’s as if the Safdie’s are speeding through his succession of movements in rapid-fire practice. He’s got a swath of people cramped in his tiny office space that is defended by bulletproof glass and a magnetic door that sticks. It’s the only sense of control Howard has in his life, and he can’t figure out how to manage even the simplest tasks who chaos erupting.
Everything about his surroundings makes sense for this character. Howard has got a certain lust for life – the more, the better. He has a house he shares with his wife (Idina Menzel), who hates his guts. So, he stays with his girlfriend (Julia Fox), who works for him in an apartment he bought for their rendezvous. Howard dodges calls from bookies, gangsters, and from his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who comes through from time to time with his cronies, whom Howard never takes seriously. He’s involved in a vicious cycle that he really has no idea how to escape from. It’s a mad dash through the film’s first 30 minutes, which set the stage for this man’s head-spinning routine.
Once the film has established its rhythm, the plotting takes off through an odyssey that introduces celebrities, criminals, and several distinct faces. In 2012, Howard’s path crossed with Boston Celtic’s Kevin Garnett after a broker (LaKeith Stanfield) brought him to the diamond shop to buy a fugazi Rolex watch. Powerless against the urge to brag in front of a professional athlete, he brings out an Ethiopian opal stone filled with the titular uncut gems. Kevin feels a calling towards the stone, and he offers Howard close to a quarter of a million bucks believing that it will bring him good luck during a playoff series game.
Through the swaying camera work of Darius Khondji (SEVEN), the New York is photographed like it’s suffocating. There’s barely any room for the characters to move. It’s stressful but intentional, no doubt. Sander’s costumes are just so perfect, personifying the faux-glamour lifestyle. Howard likes the idea of being a jeweler to the socially elite, but hocking diamonds is far too stimulating.
The Safdie’s have proven themselves as visionary collaborators. UNCUT GEMS is an incredible descent into an unsettling state of mind. Filled with bad decisions to enhance audience engagement, the film makes Howard another classic Safdie character who thrives on making one self-sabotaging decision after the other. It’s an absolute train wreck watch, and it’s a career-best for Sandler.
Word to the wise, before you set foot in the theater, lay off the coffee.
UNCUT GEMS screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 14 and 15. Visit tiff.net for more information. A24 will release the film on December 25.