uncut gems review

The Safdie Brothers love to make movies about down-and-out folks making one terrible choice after another. These movies are endurance tests of a sort – narratives that ask: “How long can you put up with what the main character is putting up with?” Uncut Gems, the latest descent into poor choices from the filmmakers, pushes the situation to the limit, setting Adam Sandler on a journey from one terrible idea to the next. On one hand, it’s a treat to watch Sandler break out of his endless stream of bargain-basement Netflix comedies to try something like this. On the other hand, by the time the journey ends, you might want to watch one of those terrible comedies just to cleanse your palate.

Adam Sandler can act. Sure, he doesn’t have what you’d call “range”, but when he feels like trying, he can turn in something remarkable. Punch-Drunk Love is the best example of this, with Sandler using his angry man-child persona in a whole new light. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is another wonderful outlier, with Sandler giving perhaps the quietest performance of his career. Even in dreck like The Cobbler, Sandler illustrates untapped potential. So the prospect of seeing the actor in a new indie from the Safdie Brothers (Good Time) is too good to ignore.

But Sandler isn’t doing anything new here. Once the novelty of watching him in this type of film wears off, all you’re left with is another performance from the actor in which he shouts every single line like a man ordering a drink in a crowded bar. It wears you down after a while, man. And perhaps that’s exactly the point – perhaps the Safdies want you to walk out of Uncut Gems and mutter, “Jesus Christ, that was exhausting.”

Opening with a shot that zooms into an opal and zooms out of Adam Sandler’s asshole, Uncut Gems is a saga of the choices people make when they put their faith in fetishized objects. The opal in question is extremely rare, and, according to Sandler’s character, jeweler Howard Ratner, worth millions. Howard gets his hands on the precious gem and plans to sell it at auction. It should be an open-and-shut case of moneymaking. But since this is a Safdie Brothers flick, nothing goes according to plan.

Howard is addicted to gambling, and he has debts all over New York City. In theory, the auction will help him pay those debts. But he can’t help himself and keeps fucking things up at every turn. Part of Howard’s business involves selling expensive jewelry to famous people – most of whom are brought into the shop by his associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). One such famous face Demany brings in is basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Howard can’t help but show-off his newly acquired opal to Garnett – a choice that ends up hypnotizing Garnett, in a manner of speaking. The pro-baller takes one look at the opal and grows obsessed, asking to buy it. Howard tries to explain it’s not for sale, but after some heavy back-and-forth arguing, he agrees to loan the gem to Garnett for a few days. This move sets off a chain of events that pile one anxious situation on top of another, with Howard making things worse for himself every step of the way.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji glides us along this journey, his camera up-close-and-personal as characters bicker, while editors Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie keep things extra tense by quick-cutting through a barrage of shouted conversations. It all works to great effect, creating an overall atmosphere of darkly comedic dread. The entire film feels like a guillotine blade hovering over our heads, just waiting to drop.

A heightened realism blankets everything thanks to the casting. Aside from Sandler and a few other familiar faces here and there, the bulk of the Uncut Gems cast all seem like real people – everyday New Yorkers the Safdies plucked off the street to pop-up in their film. But that realism hurts the film in some ways, because while everyone else here feels genuine, Sandler does not. He comes across as one of his loudmouth comedy characters transported into the middle of a Safdie Brothers film – and while that sounds cool on paper, it doesn’t quite gel on screen. And yet, it’s hard to resist the pull of Uncut Gems. As at-odds as Sandler’s performance might be, it’s fascinating to watch him navigate the waters here. Sandler is often accused of being lazy, but any actor willing to appear in a film that begins with a camera pulling out of his asshole deserves at least some acclaim.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net