Chasing the Gambling Dragon in the Pulsating Thriller ‘Uncut Gems’
“Holy shit I’m gonna cum!” moans Manhattan Diamond District merchant Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), ogling a hoagie-sized opal heavily encrusted with African sediment. Obsession begets obsession in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, a pulsating thriller about one man’s insatiable gambling habit and the chaos he leaves in his wake.
UNCUT GEMS ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Written by: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian
Running time: 134 min
The feverish film starts with a Thursday morning colonoscopy, includes a Saturday Passover Seder, and climaxes with Monday night’s Game Seven of the 2012 NBA finals. The five-day stretch virtually shimmers with flop sweat, but watching it is an absolute joy. It’s the ecstasy of agony.
And it all starts with, you guessed it, an uncut gem. Howard scoops it out of a shrink-wrapped bass buried in packing ice and Styrofoam, illegally shipped from an Ethiopian Welo mine. The opal already drew blood, when it caused a tibial shaft fracture to rip through an exhausted worker’s leg. And now its arrival in Howard’s life is about bring even more pain.
How much is enough when 18-karat Furby necklaces and $500 Gucci shirts surround you?
Excess is just a matter of opinion for Howard, a maxed-out maximalist. His divorce-thirsty wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) thinks he’s a fuck-up. His showroom mistress Julia (Julia Fox) perpetually trashes his East Side love nest. And his creditors are sick of the $20,000 watches he shoves in their faces as shut-the-fuck-up partial payments. “He’s just a fucking crazy-ass Jew,” says Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a resentful employee who lures celebrity athletes into Howard’s security-heavy store.
In walks Celtics champ Kevin Garnett (playing himself), and Howard can’t help but show off the Middle-Earth enchantments of his presumably 10-million-year-old Ethiopian opal. He tells Garnett it’s worth over a million dollars. “They say you can see the whole universe,” Howard says, inviting Garnett to stare into the gem’s 4,000 karats. Garnett dives in so deeply he shatters the glass countertop. “This fucking thing makes me feel I can fly,” he says. So off he goes, borrowing it as a talisman for his game that night and leaving Howard his 2008 championship ring as collateral. Howard, of course, immediately pawns the ring (for $21k, plus a 7% vig) and bets it all on Garnett.
That’s when the trouble really starts, as loan-shark thugs circle Howard relentlessly, up-and-comer The Weeknd makes moves on wannabe music promoter Julia, and tony auction house Adley’s keeps threatening to drop the Ethiopian opal from Monday’s upcoming sale unless it arrives in time for a proper appraisal. “It’s about fucking winning,” Howard smiles, his bloody nose still raw from being punched.
It’s a miracle that Howard merits any sympathy. Props to the Safdies for being shrewd enough to chase Sandler for the part. His two decades making bank at the box office as a loveable wiseass feels in hindsight like just a prelude to this career-topper, the juiciest role he may ever get. Uncut Gems is a stress-test for Sandler’s boundless charm, and boy does the film hold steady. Also doing serious MVP work: Darius Khondji’s radioactive cinematography and composer Daniel Lopatin’s synth-heavy dread.
Over the past decade, the Safdies have devoted themselves to chronicling the exquisite rush of bare-knuckle survival. From Daddy Longlegs to Heaven Knows What to Good Time, they’ve followed deadbeat dads, junkies and petty bank robbers, infusing their travails with a sort of ravishing anxiety. Uncut Gems is a zenith look at a harrowing nadir. Despite what the title suggests, it’s more of an impeccably crafted diamond, with a multifaceted brilliance that only comes from a masterwork.