You know, as a critic I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have a deep-seeded hatred at the sight of Adam Sandler’s face but I really don’t. I mean, if I were a “real” film critic who had to see every single movie Hollywood puts out I probably would hate the guy, but his terrible comedies are generally pretty easy to avoid, especially now that they’re going direct to Netflix and aren’t getting major advertising campaigns. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen any Adam Sandler produced movie in theaters at all since… I think 2002’s Mr. Deeds. The Adam Sander movies I have actually kept seeing are the occasional non-comedic ones that he isn’t producing and which are using his on-screen persona in interesting ways. Paul Thomas Anderson was the first serious director to use him for artistic ends in his 2004 film Punch Drunk Love and he’s also done good work in films like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Still these moments of Sandler clarity have untimely been pretty few and far between. Hopefully that changes though because he’s gotten his best role yet in the new film from the Safdie Brothers called Uncut Gems.
In the film Sandler plays a sort of jeweler for the stars named Howard Ratner who I suspect he was inspired by Jacob Arabo. Ratner owns a small storefront in the diamond district whose clientele appears to be invite only as his door is locked unless a potential buyer is buzzed in. Howard also seems to have a lot of side hustles going on and appears to gable frequently. One day in 2012 Kevin Garnett (played by himself) walks into Howard’s store on the eve of his conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. Ratner shows Garnett an uncut opal that he’d just acquired through nefarious means. Garnett is immediately transfixed by it and wants to buy it on the spot but Howard has it set for auction and can’t sell. Determined, Garnett asks that he simply be allowed to hold onto it as a good luck charm for that night’s game. Ratner agrees, but only if Garnett leaves his championship ring as collateral. Garnett agrees and Ratner immediately hatches a scheme: he’ll pawn Garnett’s ring while he’s gone and use that money to bet on Garnett that night and then use those potential winnings to pay off his gambling debts and then get the ring back before Garnett knows it was ever gone, but murphy’s law being what it is this isn’t going to be as easy as Ratner things and he’ll also need to deal with issues with his wife (Idina Menzel) and mistress (Julia Fox) while also being chased by angry loan shark enforcers.
Uncut Gems is the most high profile film yet to be directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, a directorial pair who made a bit of a splash with their films Heaven Knows What and Good Time, which were movies that never quite clicked with me but showed clear potential. Uncut Gems to me shows that potential being realized. The Safdies tell streetwise crime films set in the seedy parts of New York City that are supposedly disappearing. Their previous movies looked at a drug addict and a bank robber and this one looks at someone who could be described as a hustler. Howard Ratner is quite the creation; the very look of him with his goatee, leather jacket, and designer glasses frames communicates the kind of world he operates in and Sandler modulates his voice in a way to just make him sound like a bit of a weasel. But unlike the protagonist of Good Time, who genuinely seemed like a menace to society, you don’t really hate Ratner. Ratner doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average person, his compulsive gambling and wheeling and dealing mostly only poses a threat to himself and to the people who are foolish enough to go into not so legitimate business with him.
Much of the movie consists of Ratner running around the city trying to keep his various plates spinning, it’s kind of like a slowed down and movie length version of that section of Goodfellas where Henry Hill running a bunch of errands for the mafia while taking care of personal issues all while the FBI helicopters are swarming overhead. But the Safdies aren’t Scorsese and they bring their own style to the proceedings. Rather than fill their film with rock and roll cues they have this wild synth score in place and they have pretty modern cultural sensibilities. The film is set in 2012, presumably to put it in a time when Kevin Garnett is still playing basketball, and they manage to make some appropriate soundtrack selections and make some cool casting choices like including a prominent cameo by The Weeknd. You generally get the impression that these guys are plugged into what’s going on in the cooler sections of Manhattan and they bring it to the screen with exuberance. You also get the sense that they understand a thing or two about gambling culture, which is what the film is ultimately about. Ratner is plainly a gambling addict but this addiction is broader than just the risky bets he makes on sports, it extends to broadly to the various hustles we’re seeing him do through the whole movie. He’s a character who frustrates the audience because he makes risky mistakes, but you can tell he isn’t frustrating himself with this behavior, in fact he seems to be thrilled by the rush of it all at least when he’s winning. And to some extent so are we but we don’t need to worry about what happens when he loses.
****1/2 out of Five