Adam Sandler teams up with visionary filmmakers, the Safdie brothers for the tense and taut thriller Uncut Gems from A24. Opening with a glorious interior shot of a gem, from legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji, Uncut Gems is set in 2012 and follows New York City jewelry store owner Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). From the outside looking in, Howard appears to have it all, a successful business, loving wife, and the gift of gab. However, Howard’s life is actually a mess of chaotic proportions.
Not only is Howard cheating on his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) with his young employee Julia (Julia Fox), he’s also a compulsive gambler. Deep in debt with numerous bookies, Howard tries to use a ratiocinate mindset, yet he fails at every turn. Howard thinks his luck is going to change when his business associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), brings Kevin Garnett (portraying himself) into the store to make a purchase. Garnett has an immediate connection to an uncut Ethiopian black opal that Howard has acquired, which sets off a wild and chaotic domino effect in Howard’s life.
Uncut Gems is Adam Sandler as you’ve never seen before in his thirty-year acting career. While Sandler has taken the venture into the drama genre in his previous films, he’s never played such a dogmatic character. There are numerous moments in the movie where all I could do was shake my head at Howard’s knavish choices. Every time it seems like Howard is going to succeed, he falls back into the same bad behavior, and the pattern starts all over. Sandler’s award-worthy performance is a testament to the sentiment that comics can actually make the natural transition to dramatic work. As the film goes on, it’s apparent that the Safdie Brothers script, co-written with their frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein, don’t want us to root for Howard, nor do they want us to experience bathos in Howard’s arc. Quite possibly, the real intent is to show us the effects of one’s sins.
Watching the film as Howard interacts with those around him, it’s clear that everyone is willing to engage in some of the draconian behavior. Characters in the movie all lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want. The majority of the supporting cast all bring their A-game to Uncut Gems. The clear-cut charm of Lakeith Stanfield as Demany is a revelation. Stanfield is one of the best young actors working today, and Uncut Gems benefits from having Stanfield shy away from his standard, friendly guy roles. NBA superstar Kevin Garnett is also an astonishment, portraying a heightened version of himself. I can admit that I was skeptical of Garnett’s ability when it came to having a substantial role in the movie, but he proves me wrong, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him on screen again.
Newcomer Julia Fox also impresses in her first lead role as Howard’s mistress, Julia. Unlike the character of Dinah (Idina Menzel), Julia is given an arc and serves a purpose in Howard’s journey. The role of Dinah is more of a throwaway, and Menzel deserves better. In hindsight, the script could remove her character altogether, and the film wouldn’t even change that much.
Uncut Gems does have a long 135 min run time and could lose about twenty minutes without losing the director’s overall message. However, those who enjoy long character study films will find much to appreciate in this film. At any rate, I do recommend everyone see the movie at least once, just for the range that Sandler shows. With lush cinematography and stunning direction, Uncut Gems is one of the best uncomfortable films of 2019.
Final Grade A –