Review: “Uncut Gems”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

I watched “Uncut Gems” for the first time over two days ago, and I still have a hard time putting my reaction to the film into words.  It’s engrossing, but not exactly enjoyable; intense, even though the endgame is rather predictable.  None of the characters are likeable, including Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, but the audience still roots for their gambles to pay off.

Directed and co-written by Josh and Benny Sadfie, “Uncut Gems” is set in 2012 New York, where Howard runs a jewelry store.  He is also obsessed with high-stakes gambling, and when we see him, he’s already struggling to pay off his debts to numerous parties.  One day he receives a shipment from Ethiopia of a black opal that he estimates is valued at over one million dollars.  When he reluctantly lets basketball player Kevin Garnett hang on to it for a day, he spends the next few days chasing down the gem, evading loan sharks, and taking risk after risk to hit it big.

“Uncut Gems” is a film that I appreciate more looking back on it now than I did watching it in the moment.  Sometimes, the pacing is quick; other times, it feels almost unbearably slow, and the Sadfie’s trick us with their tense setups, making the audience believe the worst is constantly around the corner while postponing the inevitable.  Darius Khondji’s cinematography lend the film a gritty feel, while Daniel Lopatin’s electronic score is often mystical, sometimes overpowering.  As much of an assault on the senses that “Uncut Gems” can be, like Howard’s gambling habits, the viewer can’t stop watching.  We know that as in over his head as Howard is, as much as he over-confidently navigates those he owes and lays it all on the line, there can’t be any heroic end to his story.  At some point, his luck has to run out.  But it’s fascinating to see how we reach that end. 

Kevin Garnett (as himself), Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), and Howard (Adam Sandler)

The Sadfie’s do a good job both balancing the many different characters and situations and creating tension in so many scenes, but there’s also a bleak comedic element to the film that never feels out of place.  They also make the gem itself an integral character in the movie—in it are tied up the hopes and dreams of so many characters, particularly Howard, but it also represents how those dreams are just barely out of reach, and the audience really feels that hopelessness.

The Sadfie’s also get an amazing performance out of Sandler, who is able to use both his dramatic and comedic talents in this role.  He truly disappears into the role of Howard, who—for at least the majority of the movie—is relentlessly optimistic and moves so fast it’s hard for the audience to keep up with him.  But when he does take those moments to reflect on his life and his choices, Sandler makes those scenes beautiful and moving.  Those scenes also shed light on the ridiculous gambles that Howard can’t seem to stop himself from making—they make him a winner in a life where he is otherwise often made to feel like a loser.

The supporting cast is strong, particularly Garnett, who plays a version of himself in his feature film debut, and Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Demany, a guy who brings potential buyers to Howard’s shop.  Idina Menzel plays Howard’s wife Dinah, who has grown to resent him and his lifestyle, while Julia Fox plays his younger girlfriend Julia.  Fox manages to lend a lot of layers to Julia in her performance; initially seen as bubbly and sort of dumb, the Julia we see toward the end of the film actually goes about her business in a rather smart and cunning fashion. 

With “Uncut Gems,” the Sadfie brothers have created an unconventional thriller where entertainment is not the primary concern.  It will likely divide audiences, just as it divided me, but sometimes, that can be a sign of success.

Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated R.

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