Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have a panic attack that lasted for 2 hours and 15 minutes? I present you with the cinematic equivalent.
This street-level crime dramedy premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews and reactions. Following a successful screening at TIFF the following week, it was given a limited release in theaters by A24 on December 13th, 2019, and was expanded on Christmas Day. After a strong showing in specialty theaters early on, it has gone on to gross over $43.6 million at the worldwide box office thus far. This makes it the directing duo’s highest-grossing film to date, and it has one of the best per-venue averages of the year and the biggest single-day intake that the indie studio’s ever had.
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film had been in development for the better part of a decade with co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein. It’s been said to be partly inspired by the experiences of their father Albert during his time working in Manhattan. The long-gestating project apparently got enough attention for Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff to jump on-board as executive producers. Although they always intended a major basketball star to play a big role, the constant schedule changing made them go through Amar’e Stoudemare, Joel Embiid, and supposedly Kobe Bryant before finally coming to an agreement with the National Basketball Association.
Set in spring of 2012, Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweler in New York City’s Diamond District. As he swims in gambling debts, he takes on NBA star Kevin Garnett as a client, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and shows him a rare black opal from Ethiopia. Garnett becomes so enamored of it that Howard loans it to him, who immediately tries to place bets on both it and the upcoming Boston Celtics games to pay back the loan sharks.
I was a big fan of the Safdie Brothers and the work they did on their previous film, 2017’s Good Time. It was a very gritty, unflinchingly harsh story about New York criminals that wasn’t afraid to go in some very disturbing directions. It also was the film that finally convinced me that Robert Pattinson was a truly great actor worthy of recognition.
Hearing that they would be working with Adam Sandler on their next project made it sound extremely enticing. He’s always been an underrated actor who can really come alive when operating under the direction of some true auteurs, especially now that he’s gotten some major awards season buzz for it. And I can now confirm that not only does Sandler give an incredible performance here but the whole rest of the film is invigorating as well.
Much like their previous NYC-set film Good Time, this is not a film meant for the faint of heart at all. It’s a chaotic ride as we witness numerous reprehensible individuals fall down the rabbit hole of greed and money and the extreme lengths they go to get what they want. Part of what makes it so nerve-racking and harsh is that in nearly every scene, all of the actors are yelling over each other to try and get their points across and it can feel exhausting at times.
That being said, Uncut Gems does manage to offset some of that exhaustion by also sprinkling in some pitch black humor throughout. It mostly comes from perfectly timed or delivered (And colorfully profane) dialogue as well as the utter absurdity of various situations in the film. But thankfully, that absurdity never fully takes over the overall narrative in the film, and it becomes a deeply rattling theatrical experience that will stick with you for a long time.
And the rumors are indeed true: Adam Sandler has literally never been better than he is in this film, and its not close. As Howard Ratner, he gives life and personality to a man who’s essentially a scumbag with few, if any, redeeming qualities. It’s incredibly stressful as we watch him constantly make rash decisions that only contribute to his self-destruction, but his deceptive charm makes it still compelling.
Also, newcomer Julia Fox makes a huge impression as Julia, Howard’s materialistic employee and mistress. She’s extremely petty and heavily relishes in the expensive life that Howard gives her, ranging from a high-rise apartment to gorgeous jewelry. She also recognizes the trouble that he constantly gets himself into throughout the film and gets frustrated with his choices.
Kevin Garnett can now be added to the list of retired athletes who gives a surprisingly great performance. He’s able to find a darker side of his personality and uses it to a great advantage, always looking to win the next game no matter what it takes. He makes almost no attempt to hide his disgust for Howard’s methods and develops a uniquely personal connection with the opal; it makes me hope this isn’t his only film.
The supporting cast is rounded out by a capable troupe of character actors, many based in New York City. Idina Menzel as Howard’s fed-up wife, Judd Hirsch as his wealthy and religious father-in-law, Eric Bogosian as the brother-in-law mobster he owes the most money to, Lakeith Stanfield as one of his disgruntled assistants who grows an admiration for Garnett, and Mike Francesca as a local bookie and restaurant owner. All of them are unhinged and brilliantly directed in their individual roles; and that’s not even mentioning the various non-actors that appear as themselves.
And from a technical point-of-view, Uncut Gems shows the Safdie brothers further developing their cinematic style. Shot by Darius Khondji, the cinematography is presented via a grainy 35mm format that fits the gritty, grimy look of Manhattan they seem to thrive in. The camera is mostly done in a handheld, cinéma vérité not unlike their previous efforts that makes us feel like a fly on the wall. It also creates a unique color palette that helps to create an atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Bronstein and Benny Safdie also prove to be capable editors as they cut together a true banger with each scene. Considering how much the actors scream and yell over each other, there’s an impressive continuity between each shot. It also does a great back and forth between different locations for various scenes to establish a tension.
Daniel Lopatin, A.K.A. Oneohtrix Point Never, continues his collaboration with the Safdie to provide the instrumental film score. Just like his work in Good Time, it’s an absolute banger that leans heavily on electronic synthesizers and percussion. Several tracks are more ambient in nature to build the atmosphere of New York City as something almost otherworldly. Other times, the tracks are more bombastic and visceral to match the energy with which Howard is trying to hustle. The opening credits feature a psychadelic coloscopy that establishes the tone for the rest of the soundtrack.
Holding absolutely nothing back and never letting up from the first scene to the last, Uncut Gems is a relentless and brilliantly performed examination of truly depraved characters. Benny and Josh Safdie have crafted yet another exquisite portrait of a New York CIty so far removed from the glamorous view often seen in movies and aren’t afraid to explore how dark their characters can get. It also benefits from being anchored by a career-best performance from Adam Sandler that shows once and for all that he is a great actor when given the right material to work with.