Critics are all flipping for this relentless new thriller. Here’s why I’m not.
By DANA STEVENS
DEC 10, 2019
The opal-studded rock that circulates among several characters in Uncut Gems, Benny and Josh Safdie’s nerve-jangling portrait of a jewelry dealer in self-destructive free-fall, doesn’t look like much from a distance. It’s a gray blob the texture of concrete and roughly the size and shape of a potato, inlaid here and there with spots of glossy smoothness. Only when you look up close, preferably through a jeweler’s loupe, can you make out the ever-shifting rainbow of colors inside this rare hunk of stone, a black opal illegally smuggled from Nigeria inside a shipment of fish.
Still, at least two characters in Uncut Gems see more than a valuable mineral deposit. For Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), the manic proprietor of a jewelry store in Manhattan’s Diamond District, the newly acquired rock represents a chance to finally get out from under the gambling debts that have him on the run from two separate sets of angry creditors and their accompanying hired muscle. Kevin Garnett, the retired Boston Celtics star who plays himself in 2012 (hence still a pro athlete at the top of his game), visits Howard’s store on a pregame shopping spree and takes a superstitious shine to the glowing rock. Garnett has a hunch it will bring him luck in that night’s game—and the risk-addicted, basketball-mad Howard, in an early display of his gift for making the exact wrong choice in every situation, allows Garnett to borrow the rock for the night and leave his NBA championship ring as collateral
It’s certainly hard to imagine any other actor who could pull off the role, but it’s also not news that the former Billy Madison can act.
That poor decision on Howard’s part leads to a cascade of worse ones. He pawns the ring, then uses the money to bet big on that night’s Celtics game. Within 24 hours, Howard is in trouble with a whole new set of people, including his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who’s so disgusted with his compulsive gambling and checked-out parenting of their three kids that she’s pressing him to move forward with divorce plans. Then there’s his mistress (Julia Fox), an employee at the jewelry shop whom he maintains in an apartment of her own: After he catches her in the bathroom of a club flirting with the bad-boy singer the Weeknd (also appearing as himself), their every encounter devolves into an operatic screaming match. Then again, most conversations in Howard’s world are operatic screaming matches, conducted over the competing noise of overlapping background dialogue, the incessant buzzing of the locked bulletproof glass door that leads into the shop, and an ambient—perhaps too ambient, as in omnipresent—electronic score by Daniel Lopatin, who composes under the name Oneohtrix Point Never.
“I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met,” Dinah tells her husband at one point, in a tone utterly devoid of spousal affection. “I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had my way, I would never see you again.” Whether or not you agree with her may determine how you come out feeling about Uncut Gems, an abrasive movie about an abrasive man. At times, especially in the scenes involving Howard’s family life, his level of daily dysfunction has a slapstick side: At a performance of his daughter’s high school play, for example, an encounter with hired thugs leaves him naked and locked in his own car trunk. But as he gets deeper into trouble with an ever-widening group of enemies, the movie’s tone darkens, ending in a hostage situation at the jewelry store that recalls the gang-who-couldn’t-shoot-straight standoff of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. (Lumet, who specialized in character portraits of desperate misfits struggling to survive on the streets of a crime-ridden New York, has long been a point of reference for the Safdies, whose earlier movies also include the semi-autobiographical family drama Daddy Longlegs and the junkie romance Heaven Knows What.)
Uncut Gems is a movie that has no problem sacrificing character development or storytelling logic for mood, and that mood, as was the case with the Safdies’ 2017 crime thriller Good Time, is unrelentingly intense, frantic, and ragged-edged. It’s as if the directors, who co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, are aiming to reproduce in the viewer a sense of the enormous emotional toll it must take to be around—or, more exhausting still, to be—a black hole of need like the infinitely self-sabotaging Howard. There’s something to admire in the pedal-to-the-metal commitment of their project, and certainly Uncut Gems is the product of an uncompromising vision. But I found the result to be claustrophobic and, finally, dull, with scene after scene that hammers home the same point we understood from the very beginning: that Howard is a lost soul, fated to run both his business and personal life into the ground.
The brothers elicit memorable performances from supporting actors like Lakeith Stanfield, who plays a freelance hustler who rounds up high rollers like Garnett and his entourage to patronize Howard’s store in exchange for a cut of the profits. In her film debut, Fox, previously best known as a downtown Manhattan party personality, stands out in an underwritten role as Howard’s kept girlfriend, who at first seems to be an emotionally remote call girl but who turns out in the movie’s last half—and rather improbably, given Howard’s nonstop bad behavior—to be in love with him. And a grizzled Eric Bogosian plays Howard’s brother-in-law, who’s both ruthlessly intent on getting back the money Howard owes him and oddly awed by the luckless jeweler’s endless willingness to up the ante of danger in exchange for that next big score.
Sandler is being widely praised for his performance as the grating, grasping, yet somehow pitiable Howard. It’s certainly hard to imagine any other actor who could pull off the role, but it’s also not news that the former Billy Madison can act: Between Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, and The Meyerowitz Stories, among many others, he’s been playing dramatic characters, many of them with a similarly obnoxious edge, for going on two decades. The Safdies, too, are exploring territory we’ve seen them map out before, albeit this time on a larger scale. There is one image from the film that will stay with me, though: In the opening and closing shots, the jittery hand-held camera (the cinematographer is the legendary Darius Khondji) moves inside the stone named in the title, exploring the opals’ microscopic crystalline structure in trippy psychedelic color. This journey into the rock, in both cases, is linked to a Fantastic Voyage–style trip inside the protagonist’s body. It’s a bold visual metaphor that suggests some kind of mystical connection between the rare stone’s beauty and Howard’s insatiable need to possess, and eventually destroy, everything he loves—and that, unlike much of the rest of this movie, left me thinking, “I wonder what that means,” rather than “Fine, we get it already.”
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