It's practically undeniable that Uncut Gems features the best performance of Adam Sandler's career, though if you're unfamiliar with Sandler's meatier dramatic work this may sound like a not particularly lofty statement. If you are familiar with Sandler's meatier dramatic work, and you should be, then you may be shaking your head in disbelief that Sandler's turn as jeweler and fuck-up extraordinaire Howard Ratner in the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems could rival Sandler's acclaimed work in such films as P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), the criminally under-appreciated Reign Over Me, and to a lesser degree Funny People.
By now, the Safdie brothers have pretty much become known as mindfuck filmmakers. This may never be more evident than it is in the opening scene of Uncut Gems, a scene that opens in the diamond minefields of Northern Ethiopia and ends in the asshole of an asshole we're going to get to know over the next two hours and fifteen minutes - Howard Ratner, whose colonoscopy is a minefield all its own and more than likely symbolic of more than a few things that we're going to get to know about Howard and his life over the next couple hours.
Seriously. The scene is incredibly weird and yet somehow narratively cohesive.
It works. It really, really works.
This colonoscopy is pretty much the highlight of the couple of days we're going to spend with Howard, whose life sort of resembles that of a hamster constantly running on the hamster wheel but never actually getting anywhere.
The Safdies have crafted one of the year's most tense, unnerving and unforgettable thrillers, a film both funny and frenzied and so at times relentlessly exhausting that you may find yourself working up a cinematic sweat just watching it.
Howard runs the kind of shoe-box sized jewelry shop that glitters amidst the dust of New York City's Diamond District, a district defined by non-stop chaos that perfectly fits with the non-stop chaos that defines Howard's life. Howard likes to pretend that he has hopes of escaping the chaos, a hope that exists in the form of a huge gem discovered in the film's opening scene and a gem that finds its way into Howard's hands. He plans to auction it off within the week to the expected tune of a million bucks. It's a million bucks that will allow Howard to solve his financial woes and escape the clutches of the goons who monitor his every move.
But, this is Howard Ratner and escaping the madness of the cyclical self-destruction for which he seemingly lives seems damn near impossible.
There's really no escape for Howard and the Safdie brothers aren't particularly afraid of a world without escape.
Uncut Gems introduces us quickly to Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard's right-hand and connection to A-list hip-hop stars and professional athletes like Kevin Garnett, playing himself here to tremendous effect, who are attracted to the kind of bling that Howard offers. Howard, and ya gotta' love him even when you hate him can't help but flash his prized gem and before long he's loaned it to Garnett for just one night when Garnett becomes convinced it'll help him get back to the NBA finals.
Yeah, you know how this is going to go. It's the first in a series of increasingly bad choices for Howard.
For the next couple of hours, Howard deals with the fallout of these bad choices including his crumbling marriage to his wife (Idina Menzel) and his potentially cheating mistress (Julia Fox). whose affair is reported to be with hip-hop star The Weeknd, also playing himself here.
Howard is an addict, his gambling addiction only skimming the surface of a life that is entirely built upon one more deal, one more trade, one more risky choice, and a complete inability to not double down on even the worst choice. Howard is his own worst enemy, even worse than the goons that trail him including a sociopathic one frighteningly portrayed by Eric Bogosian. Howard thinks he wants to quit, but he can't and even if he gets ahead he's going to get behind again because he's addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with risky behavior and poor choices. The fact that the Safdie brothers, working from a script they created with regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein, have turned all of this into a nailbiting thriller that works is nothing short of miraculous and it has given Sandler his best role to date.
Sandler has most definitely risen to the occasion. The casting of Sandler is a stroke of genius, just as was true with the casting of Robert Pattinson in the Safdie's last film, Good Time. An inherently likable actor, Sandler never loses us despite being a nearly non-stop asshole for the film's entire running time who can't shut the fuck up long enough to figure out that he's the problem and not everyone around him. It's easily one of the year's best performances and deserves to be recognized with an Oscar nomination at the bare minimum. Sandler finds the quiet, pitch-black laughs dancing between the screams and the shouts here, while he also manages to infuse Howard with an abundance of pain and rage and pity and self-destruction.
Idina Menzel gives a tremendous performance as Dinah, Howard's long-suffering wife who radiates a repressed hatred for her husband but still seems to, rather begrudgingly, care about him. Julia Fox is also tremendous as Julia, while Lakeith Stanfield proves once again to one of the best of the up-and-comers. Both Garnett and The Weeknd shine when they get their turns, while Eric Bogosian is just plain frightening.
D.P. Darius Khondji, replacing usual Safdie cinematographer Sean Price Williams, captures all the dusty glitter of a tainted New York City while practically bathing the film in the seductive, washed-out colors of an addiction-tinged world that promises so much and delivers so little. Daniel Lopatin's original score starts off brilliantly and never pulls back.
Uncut Gems isn't likely a film for everyone. It's a relentless film, the kind of film that is so immersive that you practically shake the dust off of you as you leave the theater and call your counselor on the way out the door. For those willing to be immersed, however, Uncut Gems is one of the year's best cinematic experiences and is worth it if only to watch Adam Sandler as you've never seen him before and as you'll want to see him again. You may tell yourself that you've seen a better film in 2019 than Uncut Gems, but with relentless authenticity and exhausting exhilaration, you most certainly won't have another cinematic experience that even compares to this risk-taking, intuitive work of wonder.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic