MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Thriller/ Stars: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesa, The Weeknd, Pom Klementieff, John Amos/ Runtime: 135 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by saying there are usually 2 kinds of movies: those that are pleasant to sit through even when their quality range from excellent to crap, and those that are excruciating to sit through, but that may, or may not, prove to be rewarding for making it all the way through to film’s end. Indeed while there were many films in 2019 that fit the first category, I hadn’t had the privilege of seeing many in the latter. Thankfully, upon finally getting to see Uncut Gems, I can now correct that statement. Indeed this film may best be described as “Anxiety the Motion Picture”, and it may feature an actor who has been one of Hollywood’s critical punching bags for years, but make no mistake: this is one of the best Adam Sandler performances ever put to celluloid. Yet even with that in its back pocket, this is still a film which, after you factor in a terrific supporting cast and wonderful work from a game crew, still leaves you feeling like you just went on a roller-coaster ride that although it has left you as sore and beat-up as the main character gets throughout is one that you can’t deny was very well-made and is something you might not mind revisiting one day.
The plot is as follows: Uncut Gems takes us back to the not-too-distant year of 2012 and follows a character by the name of Howard Ratner. Ratner is a man whose chosen profession may be a jeweler of some skill and talent, but whose hobbies include hustling, adultery, and being not only an absolute degenerate, but the worst possible gambler in the history of the gambling industry. Indeed when he is not fleeing from the vast number of people he owes some amount of money to, he is either being a jerk to those around him or shacking up with his mistress who he is never entirely sure if she is trustworthy or using him for her own ends and means. Yet like all the great albeit highly greedy leeches that have come before him, Howard has a scheme in place that could potentially net him enough cash to get everyone off his back all at once. A scheme that also subsequently involves a recently acquired stone that is filled with uncut and quite priceless black opals (hence the title). Of course, like many a hustler, it should come as no surprise then to learn that Howard is significantly stupider than he is greedy. This quickly of course becomes evident when he tries to impress basketball legend Kevin Garnett by showing him the piece. Unfortunately this quickly backfires due to the small matter of Garnett becoming completely and totally fixated with the priceless stone and subsequently hounding the absolute heck out of Howard with the singular goal of letting him borrow it overnight as he feels that the stone could bring him some much-needed good luck during the next game in the NBA Playoffs. However when Howard finally caves in and agrees to loan Garnett the stone this will ultimately prove to be the proverbial domino that finally triggers a string of events that, depending on how you choose to look at it, could be seen as either terrible luck, karma coming to pay Howard back, or a divine smiting on a scale never before seen. All that can be said for certain is that by the time the last domino falls, the lives of Howard and those around him will never truly be the same again….
Now I feel that one of the incredible things that this film does very well is how much it chooses to dive into how despicable the main character really truly is. Indeed there have been too many films of this ilk or type where the film possess a slimy main character and then expects you to empathize and understand where they are coming from or why they are the way they are. Yet with this movie that cannot be done and nor do the directors try to make it possible. Indeed, finally here is a slimy, hustling, degenerate who is truly past the point of no return in regards to any and all sympathy that could ever be afforded to him. Indeed if anything, Howard as a person manages to be less of a character and more as a mixture of every single despicable character trait that no person should ever aim to have in any amount in their entire lives. Thus as a result of this despicableness that is on full-frontal display, I think it’s safe to say that the seemingly very-present anxiety and tension that you as an audience member may feel throughout the 135 minute runtime of this film will never come from a place of empathy in regards to the main character of the film. Rather it originates from a never ending wish to be freed from the cell that you chose to enter that takes the form of every single moronic or questionable decision that the film’s main character chooses to engage in knowing full good and well that he might not come out the better because of it. Indeed he may walk into these messes without a care in the world, but I can’t say the same for you movie lovers.
Now I know I said it before at the beginning of this review, but this is easily the best work that Adam Sandler has done as an actor. Indeed he is absolutely mesmerizing to behold in his turn as main character Howard. Indeed normally when you watch Sandler in a movie, any pathos his performance contains is usually overshadowed by a high degree of immaturity and a frat boyish sense of humor. That is most certainly not the case here as we see Sandler literally zip-line across the emotional spectrum in the blink of an eye. Indeed this is a guy who really is all over the place when it comes to just how he is feeling and what is going on in his head at any one particular time. Yet although this character is not without his charms, it is also not hard to see why he literally either annoys or drives everyone else in his life either to the brink or just over the line of insanity. Indeed it’s almost as if Sandler was told to play this character the way he plays his comic characters, but with more darkness and less humor and the results are nothing short of stellar. Of course, the supporting cast in this is also fantastic as we get winning turns from not only first-time actor Kevin Garnett who finally shows that a basketball player not named Michael Jordan can also be a phenomenal actor, sorry Shaq but Steel and Shazam don’t count, but also dependably great work from rising talent such as Lakeith Stanfield and old pros such as Judd Hirsch and Eric Bogosian, who played a similarly despicable character in 1988’s Talk Radio. Indeed there is not a single weak link in this cast, and they all deliver their parts to the best of their ability especially when they have to go up against the live-wire performance that Adam Sandler brings to this film.
Now I had heard of the Safdie Brothers prior to this film, due to their work on the terrific Robert Pattinson film Good Times, but after this I definitely think that this will be the film that puts them on the map. I say this because this is one of the top in regards to how well it was directed movies of the year 2019. Indeed I know there will be some people who may have an issue with their frantic and fast-paced style of doing things. Yet to me that was perfect for this film: not only because it fits the film to a t, but because it does an absolutely brilliant job of putting you in the head-space of the character that you are then forced to follow for the runtime of this film. Indeed look to seeing the Safdie Brothers’ names on some bigger Hollywood pictures in the years ahead because they may have done great work before, but this is some truly next level in the best way possible work from 2 of the most intriguing up-and-coming directorial talents in the business of making movie magic today.
All in all just as much a meditation on the destructive nature of greed as much as it is a loving ode and tribute to such crime thrillers as 1974’s The Gambler, Uncut Gems is a frenetic, frantic, dizzying, and disorienting roller-coaster ride. Yet it is also one that by the time you get off not only cements its directorial duo as the most exciting filmmaking brothers to watch since the Coens, but also showcases that when given the right material Adam Sandler can abandon his usual shtick and be just as formidable an actor as any in Hollywood working today. On a scale of 1-5 I give Uncut Gems a solid 4 out of 5.