Uncut Gems (2019)
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Cast: Mesfin Lamengo, Suin Zhi Hua-Hilton, Liang Wei-Hei Duncan
Synopsis: A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use)
Runtime: 2 hr 15 min
Release Date: December 25, 2019
While profitable sometimes, it's a slippery slope that oftentimes leads down to self-destruction, costing you your family, way of life, or worse. And it's down this path that Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) finds himself in the Safdie Brothers' new crime thriller, Uncut Gems.
Love or hate his comedies, Adam Sandler is a star, and one that has had the seeds to not just pull off, but thrive in dramatic roles for a long time. He's had very limited films to fully display this ability, with Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) being the obvious standout. But even some of his comedies have shown evidence of this (cue the heartbreaking scene where Julian is taken away from him in Big Daddy, or the Yankee stadium scene in Anger Management). So it should come as little surprise that he's up for serious Oscar contention for his latest role. And, yes, he earns it here. Sandler is a relentless, lying, borderline maniac in the film, constantly undercutting others to pave the way for more success for himself. His character reminded me at times of Jake Gyllenhaal's in Nightcrawler, even though Sandler's character doesn't approach the sociopathic levels of Gyllenhaal's. Howard is an unlikable protagonist, which, like Gyllenhaal's Louis, is a dangerous and risky move in screenwriting. The key is to motivate the characters' actions so the audience can understand, but not necessarily agree or side with their choices. And here is where Nightcrawler did a superior job--because while we understand Howard's motivations of trying to pay off a debt--that empathy runs out when he moves past that point and continues to double-cross others in pursuit of even more money. It doesn't detract from Sandler's performance, but it makes his character much less likable by the end of the movie, which is unfortunate since the potential to make it better is there, just not executed. Furthermore, the characters surrounding Sandler are rather bland, one-dimensional beings, offering little substance to bite in to, which pulls us right back to Howard. Again, a little more effort in these characters would've gone a long way, but unfortunately we don't get it.
Beyond Sandler's performance, the best aspect of the film is its fast pace, which is heightened by quick-fire dialogue that unfortunately (at least in my theater) was hard to hear at times, but served to immerse viewers in the rapid and cutthroat world of Howard's life. He seems to never rest or sleep--instead he's constantly on the move, either evading those he owes money to or looking for new ways to make more. His life and world is chaotic, and the cinematography conveys this too---we are fed tons of close-ups and moving camera angles which, yes, are analogous to his life, but are rather disorienting at times for viewers, making this not the most enjoyable of films to watch. The title sequences are also out of place, taking us on over extended journeys through portals that feel very unmotivated and instead show-boaty--I'm still trying to piece together what could've been the ideas surrounding them.
Thematically speaking, Uncut Gems does a good job of pointing out the dangers of obsession over material wealth, as it highlights a character that puts that idea above all else in his life, including his family and friends, with great cost. It's been done to greater effect in other films, but the Safdie Brothers deserve credit here for creating a bleak world that feels raw and visceral, where danger lurks around every corner and you're never quite sure what might happen.
While certainly a flawed film, Uncut Gems is a fast paced, gripping ride that doesn't relent until the end. It suffers from some disorienting cinematography and a flood of one-dimensional characters and an only partially motivated protagonist, but Sandler's committed performance manages to overshadow at least part of those shortcomings, making for an entertaining, albeit frustrating "could be better" ride.
Written by Anthony Watkins, January 10, 2020