Powered by Adam Sandler's note-perfect turn, Uncut Gems is a stylishly scuzzy work that's as propulsive as it is maddening and exhausting.
Much like their last film, 2017's Good Time, the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems is a grimy '70s-style Scorsesean character piece that cranks its settings up to eleven, in an effort to send your anxiety levels spiking. Love 'em or hate 'em, the pair have a uniquely frantic storytelling voice befitting of their movies and the way they explore addiction in all the many forms it can take, but especially addiction to the idea of a big score that will finally give you the life you always wanted. The Safdies only continue to hone their style here, even as their film tests (and shatters) the limits of just how compelling an unlikeable protagonist can actually be. Powered by Adam Sandler's note-perfect turn, Uncut Gems is a stylishly scuzzy work that's as propulsive as it is maddening and exhausting.
Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as Howard Ratner, an NYC jewelry store owner whose life is a chaotic mess; he's in debt to almost everyone he knows, he's on the verge of leaving his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) for his young employee Julia (Julia Fox), and the second he has any extra money, he gambles it away betting on professional basketball games. However, when he gets his hands on a precious Ethiopian black opal and finds a buyer in NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (as himself, circa 2012), Howard believes he's finally struck gold. Of course, that's assuming he can pull his scheme off before someone he owes cash to decides to take him out for good.
Uncut Gems is, above all else, an extremely loud and jittery film. Characters are constantly talking (nay, yelling) over one another, and it's a testament to the movie's sound design that you can clearly make out everything that's being shouted at once (assuming it doesn't simply overwhelm you). This is the world Howard lives in and as off-putting as one may find it to be, the Safdies do an impressive job of bringing it to cinematic life. The pair are further aided and abetted by Darius Khondji's beautifully unvarnished cinematography, which juxtaposes its disreputable portrait of NYC and its residents with shots of the interiors of the black opal and the cosmic splendor it contains within. And much like he did with Good Time, Daniel Lopatin aka. Oneohtrix Point Never composes a lively electronica score that keeps Uncut Gems feeling unsettling, even in its rare quieter moments.
This brings us to the movie's biggest problem: Howard. A film doesn't need to have a likable lead to be successful, but it's hard to find Howard interesting as a protagonist when he's so unabashedly slimy, self-serving, and foolhardy all at once. Uncut Gems doesn't ask viewers to empathize with him so much as pity him, but even that's difficult because, as far as antiheroes go, Howard isn't really so much a charming sleaze-ball as he is, well, merely a sleaze-ball. And while the movie certainly doesn't glorify him, its plot starts to become repetitive as Howard screws up again and again in increasingly foreseeable ways. Good Times' Connie Nikas was also sleazy and privileged, but his decent intentions made him tragic; Uncut Gems portrays Howard as being more tragicomical, but the dark humor of his story comes through much stronger than the tragedy.
Sandler's performance, however, is another matter. The role of Howard is, in many ways, tailor-made for the actor; he's like a more realistic version of the rich goofball dads Sandler has played in his comedies over the last decade, similar to how Punch-Drunk Love's Barry Egan resembled a more grounded version of the man-children Sandler played earlier on in his career. Sandler makes the character more engaging in spite of his repugnant nature, and it's easy to believe he would irritate the people around him (including, Lakeith Stanfield in a characteristically good turn as Howard's partner, Demany) as readily as he does. Fox is also fascinating as "Jules", a survivalist who knows how to navigate the seedy world of wealthy older men preying on young women, yet allows herself to be truly vulnerable with Howard, and vice versa. The rest of the Uncut Gemscast feel a bit wasted, though, as they pop up for a scene or two to rant at Howard for being awful (which, to be fair, is fun), then go about their merry way.
Half a dozen feature films into their career, it's reasonable to call the Safdies polarizing storytellers at this point. Their neo-noir dramas and crime-thrillers about characters driven to self-destruction by their addictive behavior (whether they crave a literal drug or figurative one) have a distinct style that, depending on who you ask, is either electrifyingly intense, obnoxiously frenzied, or a bit of both at the same time. In the case of Uncut Gems, it's a movie that takes you on a proper roller coaster ride, but one where the turns become easier to spot as time goes on, and leaves you feeling too wiped out to invest emotionally in its shady lead. Those who adored the Safdies' previous work will probably dig this one too; everyone else might be better off looking for their next big score elsewhere.
Uncut Gems begins playing in select U.S. theaters on Friday, December 13 and goes nationwide on December 25. It is 135 minutes long and is rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.