Uncut Gems

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Benny Safdie Josh Safdie

Starring

Adam Sandler Idina Menzel Lakeith Stanfield

Anticipation.

The culmination of all our wildest dreams.

Enjoyment.

The most absurd, anxiety-inducing 134 minutes of your life.

In Retrospect.

A devastating fever dream about the consequences of chasing an ever-illusive high.

Mr Sandman brings us a dream with his hypnotic turn as a fatalistic Jewish jeweller.

Adam Sandler’s greatest strength is his flair for the ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if he’s blue-suited anger bomb Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love or garbling buffoon Bobby Boucher Jr in The Waterboy – a problem is a problem is a problem, and his characters, a motley crew of outcasts, weirdos and nasal-voiced nobodies, tend to have a lot of them. He cut his teeth as a comedian on variety sketch show Saturday Night Live alongside the likes of Phil Hartman and Chris Farley, before transitioning into a career as the King of Lowbrow Comedy which made him a beloved bannerman for the North American nebbish.

Sandler sceptics cite his ‘serious’ work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach as proof of a talent that is rarely exploited to its full potential, but there’s no need to hold up evidence as part of this thesis. If you know, you know. He’s a gifted performer, and when he deigns to channel that into a project as masterfully constructed as Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, the results are nothing short of dazzling.

A decade ago, fresh off their second feature Daddy Longlegs, the Safdie brothers tried to convince Sandler to star in their next movie. It was a long shot, given their lack of credentials – they were small time indie directors with just two features under their belts – and predictably, the conversation was shut down pretty quickly. (Sandler went on to make Jack and Jill, and sign a multi million-dollar deal with streaming service Netflix.)

In 2017, after their frenetic Queens runaround Good Time took Cannes (and, later, the world) by storm, Sandler became aware of their work, and now, a project some 10 years in the making arrives fully-formed and ready to shake down audiences with all the gusto of a debt collector who’s fast running out of patience.

It’s important to note this because it would be inaccurate to suggest anything about Uncut Gems is left to chance. Its frantic energy gives it a feeling of looseness, but this is precision-engineered filmmaking which creates that staggering illusion. In fact, it’s only on repeat viewings that you really gain a sense of just how meticulous the film is; the first time around, it feels like sensory overload.

The intoxicating score by Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) is a shape-shifting chimera. It draws inspiration from mid-2000s club tracks through to choral interludes, and in the sumptuous production and costume design there’s enough gold, silver and precious stones to put the Tower of London’s collection to shame. Add to the mix high-stakes gambling, mounting debts with circling loan sharks, a complicated domestic situation, and a smuggled Ethiopian black opal, and you have a recipe for exhilarating, unbridled disaster.

Sandler, as always, is at the heart of the chaos. As New York diamond dealer Howard Ratner, his uniform is striking: rimless Cartier glasses, a Ferragamo logo belt, Gucci horsebit loafers. He looks put together, if not anachronistic – a relic of old money who’s either unconcerned with or unable to keep up with the latest trends. He has a beautiful soon-to-be-ex-wife named Dinah (Idina Menzel), and three kids, who live in a plush mini-mansion in Long Island, while Howard works in Manhattan selling jewellery to basketball players and entertains a sweet romance with employee, Julia (Julia Fox). But Ratner, like all of the Safdies’ struggling protagonists, is paddling frantically to keep his head above water.

Like deadbeat dad Lenny in Daddy Longlegs, helpless drug addict Harley in Heaven Knows What, and impetuous crim Connie in Good Time, Howard is a deeply desperate individual. A crippling gambling addiction has landed him over $100k in hock to various creditors, all of whom are closing in on him. As the net tightens, Howard devises a scheme to strike it rich: he imports a rarer-than-rare black opal from Jewish Ethiopians who work in the Welo Mine, and plans to sell it off to the highest bidder

The Safdies, alongside co-writer Ronald Bronstein, are uniquely skilled when it comes to inventing protagonists who remain empathetic even when they’re unlikable. We understand Howard’s thought processes, even when we might despise him, and Sandler – King of the Underdogs for so long it’s sometimes easy to forget he’s now worth half a billion dollars – has the charisma to carry it off. He scrambles for control, and the second he has it he gambles it all away.

A remarkable sense of pathos is evoked watching him bumble through life, locked in the trunk of his own car or cracking wise at the seder with his extended family. You root for him, even when he gets knocked down by the hired goons he owes money to. You want Howard to catch the break he’s been chasing for what seems like his whole life.

But he is searching for a high that only ever lasts for a few seconds, and respite in Uncut Gems only comes in feverish, stolen gulps. A scene in a UV-lit nightclub sees Howard look on while The Weeknd performs ‘The Morning’ – a rare moment of near-stillness amid the carnage. “All that money / the money is the motive,” the singer croons, speaking directly to the obsession threatening to derail our wily protagonist’s life once and for all. Tension comes in the most remarkable of places: watching NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett play basketball becomes as great a feat of anxiety-inducing cinema as any high-stakes heist.

In a film so rich with the iconography of Jewish identity and all-American decadence, it’s easy to get lost in the details; in the bedazzled Furbies, the mint green and baby pink walls of Howard’s office, the gold Mezuzah pendant he wears around his neck. But Uncut Gems is a sleight of hand trick, ready to land all its trumps while you’re still fumbling for the Queen of Hearts. This might be more polished than the Safdies’ past work thanks to Darius Khondji’s svelte cinematography and Lopatin’s ambitious, turbulent score, but it’s no less real or bruising on impact.

Over the course of five fiction films, the Safdie brothers have created a series of anarchic but always deeply compassionate snapshots of human rot across the five boroughs of New York, while simultaneously demonstrating their unmistakable love and affection for the city that raised them. They continue to reckon with the idea of how self-interest shapes a person’s every move while maintaining a neurotic sense of humour, and their stories are laden with self-induced suffering that never feels mawkish.

Their blunt perceptiveness and flair for corralling entropy onto cinema screens, allied with a truly unforgettable Sandler performance, mark Uncut Gems as not only a ludicrous achievement in technical finesse, but unrelenting creativity as well. It’s stylish and sad and funny and bleak and a thousand other things. But most of all, it’s a pure hit of Sandler and Safdie.

Published 16 Dec 2019

Tags: Adam Sandler Benny Safdie Josh Safdie The Safdie Brothers

Anticipation.

The culmination of all our wildest dreams.

Enjoyment.

The most absurd, anxiety-inducing 134 minutes of your life.

In Retrospect.

A devastating fever dream about the consequences of chasing an ever-illusive high.

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Musician Daniel Lopatin on soundtracking the Safdie brothers’ stunning latest.

LWLies 82: The Uncut Gems issue – On Sale Now!

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