Premise: A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
Meet Howard Ratner. He’s Jewish, in his 40s, married with three kids but is in the midst of divorcing his wife. He runs a successful* jewelry business to the stars in Manhattan, and has what can laconically be described as a gambling addiction. Almost everyone is tired of Howard’s shtick as soon as they come into contact with him, including his wife and daughter. The only people he has genuine connections with are his teenage son and his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox, a breakout star in the making). Physiologically speaking, he has to sleep at some point, but there is no evidence to suggest he does. His mind is constantly racing, moving from one deal to the next, trying to get ahead and hit the jackpot. He’s a machete juggler where all of the machetes are on fire, and he’s prone to dropping them a little too frequently.
*Howard claims to be one of the first jewelers to sell big jewelry to rappers for their music videos, but who knows if it’s the truth or just a sales pitch? He’s clearly been in the business for a long time and he lives in a lavish home outside the city, but there’s surely a reason beyond his addiction that he’s so severely in debt.
Uncut Gems, the first film from Josh and Benny Safdie since 2017’s Good Time, dives deep into what makes Howard tick and the various messes he simultaneously gets himself into. As soon as the film opens on him, Howard is already at least $100,000 in debt, pawning as many watches, rings, and shirts as he can. Soon enough, he gets a visit from Kevin Garnett, who is in town for a Celtics playoff game (the film takes place in 2012, when Garnett was at the height of his career). One of the best surprises of this film is how subtly great Garnett is, with what could have easily been a showy, one-note cameo performance. While KG is at the shop, Howard receives a package that he believes will change his life: a gigantic opal that he’s spent months procuring from Ethiopia, which he’s been told is worth a million dollars. He shows the gem to Garnett, and Garnett is instantly transfixed; there’s a visual motif that the Safdie brothers return to when the camera gets closer and closer to the opal, to the point where it evokes a voyage through the depths of space. From this point on, the opal becomes a Maltese Falcon-esque object of obsession: Garnett wants it because he believes it gives him strength, and Howard wants it because it’s his ticket out of debt. The final scene between them near the end of the film is one of my favorites of the year.
It may be hard to believe given his post-2000 movie roles, but Sandler is electric from beginning to end. He’s never been better, topping his previous high when directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch Drunk Love. Yes, this is the same Adam Sandler that has essentially played the same idealized version of himself – with the occasional dramatic role sprinkled in-between – for most of his career. Without Sandler’s frenetic energy, Uncut Gems would not be able to sustain its breakneck pace for the quickest 130 minutes you’ll sit through all year. It’s incredible how Sandler skillfully depicts the despair and desperation of a gambling addiction, without making the easier choices that a lesser actor would make. Much of the film’s stakes rest on the bets that Howard places on NBA games – which shouldn’t work at all on paper – but Sandler makes these scenes dramatic and funny. Sometimes Howard plays dumb, but Sandler makes it so hard to tell if he truly doesn’t know what’s going on or if he’s being sincere. When an unwanted visitor refuses a bottled water, Howard brings him one regardless. When the visitor blows up at him, Howard almost looks surprised. Was Howard messing with him, or was his mind racing too quickly to pay attention?
Josh and Benny Safdie continue to find new, darkened New York alleyways to explore in what has become a recurring focal point of their films: scummy men who get in too far over their heads, slowly unraveling as they try to crawl back out. There’s a lot of similarities between Good Time and Uncut Gems, beyond the dressed-down casting of major Hollywood actors (Robert Pattinson and Sandler, respectively). One wouldn’t be too surprised if Good Times’ Connie Nikos were to frantically run past Howard Ratner on the street. But whereas Nikos relied on his ability to talk his way out of a situation, Ratner doesn’t possess the same gift of gab. And whereas Nikos’s actions destroyed the lives of those around him, Howard’s actions mostly cause harm to himself.
Though they don’t retain the same cinematographer (Darius Khondji here), both films share the same gritty, neon-tinted aesthetic with distinctive coloring. There’s a blacklit scene at a nightclub here that is the visual highlight of the film. Both films have anxious, synth-heavy scores by Daniel Lopatin, except in this instance the score can be a little too heavy-handed at times.
I’ve mentioned Sandler and Garnett’s performances, but I can’t, in good conscience, end this review without mentioning the remaining supporting cast. Lakeith Stanfield, as Howard’s man on the streets that brings in the big clients, is effortlessly cool. Idina Menzel (!) as Howard’s wife is hilarious (especially in a silent, icy look she gives to Howard at their home) and nails every dramatic beat. Julia Fox takes the stereotypical “dumb girlfriend/mistress” role and gives it plenty of heart and pathos. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
How much you enjoy Uncut Gems will probably depend on your tolerance for not only Adam Sandler, but the Safdie brothers’ relentless pacing. But, like a car crash in slow motion, you’ll find it hard to look away. “You can see the whole universe in an opal” Howard says at one point, referring to the rainbow of colors the gem reflects. But you get the sense that the only color he really sees is green.
FINAL TAKE: Boston Celtics fanatics – did the post-game footage of Garnett actually happen? It seems a tad too on-the-nose to be real but Garnett’s language has enough verisimilitude to fool most people.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.