UNCUT GEMS (directed by Ben & Joseph Safdie, 135 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC There were several points while watching Uncut Gems that my Apple Watch began to go off letting me know that my heart rate was getting out of control, and that I needed to take a moment to “breath.” Watching the film in a darkened theater, I felt very much like its protagonist – trapped, anxious and fearing for my own sanity. It was during the third haptic Apple Watch alarm that I knew I was witnessing one of the best films this year.
Uncut Gems the newest film by the Safdie Brothers (Good Time) begins in Ethiopia, in the aftermath of a bloody mining accident. In all the chaos, a rare black opal worth at least a million dollars is smuggled out of the mine by a pair of entrepreneurial miners and ends up in the hands of New York diamond district Jewish jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Ratner who is a compulsive gambling addict, an adulterer and neck deep in debt is looking for an easy out with the rare stone. That’s when now-retired NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing none other than himself, is brought into his showroom and has a spiritual connection with the opal, and asks to borrow it for luck. This is during the 2010 playoffs between the Celtics and the Sixers. When Garnett, pulls off a series best with the gem in his possession, he isn’t so quick to let go of the gem that is due for auction, as Ratner is just trying to make it through the Passover holiday with both of his kneecaps intact.
While I don’t consider myself an Adam Sandler fan, and haven’t sought out a film of his since high school, given the premise and directors I was intrigued to say the least. Unlike Robert Pattinson in Good Time, something remains pure and almost redeemable about Sandler’s gambling-addicted degenerate jeweler. This empathy seriously amps up the tension in the Safdie Brother’s trademark gritty underworld, as we see Ratner dig himself deeper and deeper still believing his big score is just over the horizon. It’s a tense watch, but one that gives the actor better known for his dick and fart humor the chance to show his detractors, just what he can do with the right material. Sandler is electric on screen with his manic take on a man struggling to keep his head above the surface in shark infested waters.
Sandler is surrounded by a cast that includes Idina Menzel, the always great Lakeith Stanfield and Kevin Garnett who all deliver very grounded takes, contrary to Sandler’s larger than life personae. Ratner feels at times like he is plugged into something almost ethereal once the gem is in his possession, which is similar to Garnett who we witness glimpses something spectacular, when he looks into the opal. It’s an almost mystical layer of subtext that for me brings something new to the loan shark film genre, a very dark sub-genre in Chinese cinema. Like other Safdie brother’s films Gems has a bleak documentarian look that to me felt like it was looking at New York as the unsafe urban jungle that was the playground of exploitation directors did in the ‘70s.
Uncut Gems is tense, sleaze-filled trip through the dark underbelly of New York’s Jeweler’s Row. Sandler is gloriously unhinged on screen in what is hands-down the performance of his lifetime. Gems is a complex narrative that has this ethereal subtext as well as an interesting cultural deep dive into Ratner’s relationship with his African American hip-hop and sports clientele. It’s a very nuanced script, with a lot of moving parts, that never leans into stereotypes, but also isn’t simply content with being a thrill ride. The Safdie Brother’s assisted by Ronald Bronstein have crafted a masterpiece that manages to get its audience to side with its tragically flawed protagonist and even root for him in a third act that left me speechless and almost gave me a heart attack, as Ratner goes for broke one final time.