“Uncut Gems” is a breath of fresh air for the tired American cinema
What comes to mind when you hear a movie described as “character-driven”? Subtle, awards-cloying performances? Slow-to-steady pacing? A carefully terse script? If any of these symptoms apply to you, I immediately prescribe you a hefty dose of the Safdie brothers.
Josh and Benny Safdie are a New York-based directing duo with a taste for the chaotic and an eye for the scummy. Their previous feature, Good Time, was 99 minutes of this and then that and then this and then that and then these that were intended to be tied together by a manic central performance from budding indie darling Robert Pattinson. I found it vapid, obvious, and immensely disappointing.
Nevertheless, the Safdies still held my attention. Their movies look like Mean Streets on a continuous stream of poppers, and their fixation on unsavory characters is a fascinating alternative to the contemporary Hollywood hero whose biggest moral flaw is usually the tendency to being sad about various sad things.
Enter Uncut Gems. The film’s viral trailer promised a similar pace to Good Time as well as an equally questionable cast of characters. Adam Sandler’s diamond dealer and gambling junkie Howard Ratner captivated me from the first time I saw his capped teeth. With a truly batshit cast including Judd Hirsch, The Weeknd, Trinidad James, Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, and Kevin Garnett to back Sandler up, I knew this movie was, at the very least, going to be an experience.
It was so much more. The style that the Safdies introduced in Good Time has been perfected for Uncut Gems. From its opening shot of a mine in Ethiopia to its frenetic recreation of the Diamond District racket, the movie sprints through more scenes and set-pieces than a two-handed storyboard artist could muster. What separates it from Good Time, though, is that it never loses sight on what makes it different.
The plot of Uncut Gems is a furious sequence of events centering around Howard’s attempts to sell a massive Ethiopian opal while trying to pay off his debts and manage his equally tempestuous personal life. If you watch the movie for the plot, you’re bound to be entertained though likely not riveted. If you watch the film for its characters, however, you’re set for just over two hours of nonstop revelation.
Idina Menzel gives an astounding performance as Howard’s discontented wife, and newcomer Julia Fox puts forth a solid effort as Howard’s troubled girlfriend and employee. The interplay between Howard and these two women constantly creates a sense of unease—his declarations of love to either at times feel specious and at others absurdly sincere—while simultaneously giving you an insight into the lying, broken, and almost pathetically heroic man that Howard is. Every iota of plot this movie has fuels a fire that, as it burns larger, lets the viewer see more into the core of its protagonist. It’s beautiful, alarming, and highly original.
Sandler rises to the challenge of playing such a demanding role, though I hesitate to say he brings any more originality to the character than the movie already gave him. He has scenes, particularly a late one with Garnett, where a combination of his look, energy, and speech produces something truly astounding. Most of the time, though, he’s just doing what the movie needs of him—a movie like this, though, needs quite a bit.
The movie is not perfect—the plot can meander and the integration of humor isn’t always timed well. The Safdies’ singular style prevents any lingering, but some scenes just demand more time than they’re given. Fixation on any of this, though, is to miss the point entirely. We’re here to see this world and see these characters’ places in it. Anyone who’s ever walked down 47th street (or any city street, for that matter) should forgive the film its messiness entirely—real life is just as cluttered.
Watching Uncut Gems is like watching American film evolve before your very eyes. The film achieves the grasp into reality that early Scorsese so desperately strove for while still maintaining a truly magnetic style. It strives for a reflection of reality but achieves it in entirely new ways. It’s great to exit the theater with a greater sense of truth than you entered with; walking out with a 120 BPM is just a bonus.
HIGHLIGHTS: Characters, production design, cinematography, the first time Kevin Garnett looks into the opal, Menzel’s performance.
LOWLIGHTS: Not every joke lands, plenty of scenes feel unnecessary.