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Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a once successful New York gems dealer whose gambling addiction has left his family and career in shambles, and him hundreds of thousands in debt. Always looking for the next big bet, Howie thinks he finally hit it big when he discovers a rare uncut rock of Ethiopian gems, with a very interested high-profile buyer. But the closer Howie gets to finally winning big, the more he is forced to realize he can't keep running from the consequences of his actions.
Watching a guy screw up for two frantic hours may not sound very compelling, but this is a fine piece of work
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, and Benny Safdie, and directed by the Safdies, Uncut Gems is essentially two hours and fifteen minutes of watching a guy screw up in increasingly spectacular and catastrophic ways. It's a film where you know from the first ten minutes that sooner or later, he won't be able to worm his way out of one of his mistakes, and at that point, his seemingly unshakable optimism and belief in his own delusions will prove ill-equipped to deal with the reckoning. So from the first act, you're on edge, and you remain there for the duration. It's a film that never stops moving at the chaotic breakneck speed with which it begins, a film possessed of energy nearly queasy in nature. It has also been made with such craft, the mise en scène is so good, the dialogue so sharp, and the acting so intense, that you may as well be watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It's a film made of pure sweat and anxiety, and I'd highly recommend it.
New York, 2012. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a charismatic jeweller who lives his life on the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. A serious gambling addict, he always has at least one hustle going, and he always owes somebody something. Soon after we meet him, it's revealed that he's currently in debt to his loan-shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) to the tune of $100,000. Meanwhile, his jewellery business is doing well, not the least reason for which is his colleague Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who helps bring in high-profile clients. The latest example of such is Boston Celtics' basketballer Kevin Garnett (a surprisingly strong performance by Garnett himself). As Garnett is browsing the store, it's revealed that Howard has smuggled an ultra-rare black opal of extraordinary translucence into the country for an auction the following day, where he expects it will sell for up to $1 million. However, when Garnett sees the stone, he insists he is allowed to have it as a lucky charm, just for the match he's playing that night. Howard is reluctant but agrees to part with it when Garnett offers to leave his All-Star ring as collateral (which Howard immediately pawns for money to place a bet on Garnett's game). And, predictably, things quickly go awry.
Howard is a delusional and doomed figure who's very much the product of late capitalism; a man who genuinely believes, despite past experience to the contrary, that his big score is right around the next corner. In this respect, the film is a deconstruction of the concomitant globalised alienation; a system capable of drawing into a single self-delusional orbit such varied parties as exploited Ethiopian manual labourers, small business owners in New York, under-pressure athletes, loan-sharks, and bookies - all operating with the unshakable belief that a huge win is just within their grasp. Howard, of course, is the worst example, and is essentially a fantasist who's utterly divorced from reality, a man who believes completely that if people would get out of his way and let him turn that fabled corner, all of his worries will disappear. It's the gambling addict's fallacy - no matter how much or how often you lose, the next bet will be the big winner. The problem Howard faces is that he has made promises based on that fallacy - he owes money which he can only pay if his latest scheme works out exactly as intended; such is the precarious house of cards that is his life.
In this sense, the film is an especially astute study of addiction, although this theme is never foregrounded - no one accuses Howard of being a gambling addict, and he certainly doesn't seem to think of himself as one. This is not a cautionary tale. However, if you're paying even the slightest bit of attention, you can't help but see just how hopelessly consumed Howard is by his addiction (never once does he give the impression that he wants to stop gambling). It has wormed its way into every facet of his life, to the point where it has become his life, or certainly a hugely important part of that life. This is why delusion is such a major component in his psychological make-up - addiction and delusion form an ever-tightening feedback loop that becomes more difficult from which to escape, the more self-sustaining they become.
In terms of aesthetics, it's worth noting that two of the three writers (Bronstein and Benny Safdie) are also credited as the editors, and this is crucial insofar as the frenetic pace of the narrative isn't achieved only by the cutting, but by the script as well - this is a film written by people with at least one eye on the editing rhythms. The first scenes in New York, for example, immediately establish the chaotic energy - Howard speaking rapidly into his mobile, dialogue overlapping almost unintelligibly as multiple characters interact and talk over one another, at least three things always happening, each one of which would occupy our complete attention in a more conventional film. Here, it's almost like everything is a background to everything else, with nothing ever given a sustained sole focus. The opening scenes establish the pace as blistering, and that never really changes. It's the kind of film where there's perpetual propulsive momentum - because the characters never stop moving, neither does the story, even if the characters never actually manage to get anywhere. The score, by Daniel Lopatin, is also excellent. Obviously inspired by Tangerine Dream's electronic scores for Michael Mann's early films, most notably Thief (1981), it's a crucial element of the film, adding to the overlapping cacophony of sounds and enhancing the general sense of twitchy chaos.
As for the acting, everything you've heard about Sandler is true; he's incredible. Sure, he's playing the same kind of volatile delusional loser that he's played in a million-and-one subpar comedies. But it's the tone of the performance, the key in which he plays Howard that makes it stand out. You could make the argument that Howard is simply Sandler dialled up to 11, and you wouldn't be wrong, but the inherent tragedy of the man, his self-delusion, his seemingly unquenchable optimism and belief in himself - Sandler draws these elements out every second he's on-screen, finding pathos in virtually everything he does. Elsewhere, Bogosian is his usual stoically intimidating self; as Howard's wife Dinah, who has grown to loathe her husband, Idina Menzel manages some of the most withering looks ever captured on film; and as Howard's naive but sweet mistress Julia, debutant Julia Fox imbues what could have been a clichéd bimbo-type role with real emotional nuance.
As for problems, the pace of the film will certainly put some people off. There are no down-moments here, no scenes designed to let the audience breath. This is as anxiety-inducing a film as you're likely to see, and that simply won't be to everyone's taste. Partly because of this, the tone never really varies. There are some comic beats (Howard getting dumped naked into a car trunk during his daughter's school play is particularly funny), but by and large, the tone is perpetually dark, ominous, and exhausting. Which, again, won't be for everyone. And there will, of course, be people who just can't get past the presence of Adam Sandler, which I can understand. Personally though, I loved Uncut Gems. It's certainly not the subtlest of films, nor the most thematically complex, but as character studies go, this is exceptionally good work from everyone involved and a genuinely unique piece of cinema.
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