‘Uncut Gems’ (2019) Review

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A wide, expansive shot of sweltering barren mines in Ethiopia may not be where we expected a film like this to start, but it’s the immediate choice we were given.  Almost as soon as the establishing shot arrives, the camera thrusts us into the struggle of a disturbing compound leg fracture, frantic miners attempting to carry their fallen comrade to safety, face-first with unyielding pain. We can almost feel the sharp helplessness in our own limbs.

Although we don’t speak the language, nor have any semblance as to our bearings, immediately we are aware of the damage a livelihood of this sort brings.  Of course, we never revisit that crippled worker or that location again–after all, it’s a New York movie, right? A deeply unsettling, frenetic, and intimately gritty POV narrative featuring a delicious Adam Sandler creation. It’s all of those gloriously disorienting things, but encased in a context that refuses to grant us full scope until the final jarring moments.  

It makes perfect sense that we kick off the unrelenting sprint in East Africa with a crippled miner.  Because black opals, man, well…they’ve got an energy all their own and screw you if you try to manipulate it.

After Ethiopia, we spend our time in the mania-fueled world of Howard Ratner; a high-end jeweler in the heart of New York’s diamond district. Comfortable in slightly elevated leisure threads and working alongside extreme characters, we quickly discover Howard (an engrossing Sandler) is a deeply flawed man eagerly looking to play the next big angle. 

Through a convoluted series of events, he spends the bulk of the film balancing outstanding gambling debts, attempting to retrieve his beloved black opal from an NBA All-Star–only to turn around and sell it for a fortune, well…almost, and maintain the unkempt but pleasured life with this side lady, Julia.  Between being locked naked in a trunk in a high school parking lot and temporarily hocking a championship ring and countless calculated–and a few not-so-calculated–turns, an enveloping series of events grabs hold of Howard, who may be too far gone to make a safe exit. Not quite a cautionary tale as it is an almost empathetic character study that finds us rooting for this patron saint of the fast-paced, unkempt NYC jeweler game.  Yet, when the darkness finds him…dare I say we feel nothing?

Uncut Gems is a black opal in and of itself, influencing anyone attempting to handle it–viewers included.  One of the best films of the year, it gives a giant middle finger to the Oscar-bait narratives of old.  It’s not a “story that needs to be told” or an “iconic biopic” or even an “ill-fated yet romantic love story”.  In terms of cultural impact, within the Twitter-verse and stripped-down prestige filmmaking, it just might be the most millennial movie yet–a moniker that comes with nothing but the highest form of praise and respect, although using that r-word almost feels like a disservice to the energy of the film itself.

Benny & Josh Safdie crafted an unrelenting, urban roller coaster ride pushing us to the teetering edge. We desperately try to stay one-step ahead of the looming tsunami that adult expectations, debt, and, yes, even dangerous consequences bring. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road; a frenetic chase boiling your blood as it injects cocaine-like euphoria into your veins. You’re guessing how delectably crazy it’ll get … only instead of a dystopian wasteland it’s the Jewish diamond district and NBA fanaticism of urban New York circa 2012.  And oh is it so perfectly 2012!

At the center is the unlikable (but low-key likable?) greasy antihero, Howard Rather, a near brilliant problem solver and addict who can’t decide if the gravitational pull of this very real underworld is his or an outside force which he’s trying to outrun.  In the sense of immersive filmmaking, Uncut Gems is maybe the most surprising arrival, but no doubt about it we’re pushed off the diving-board from frame one and challenged to stay afloat in the rippling deep-end without an opportunity to pause.  And it does so in grand, visceral fashion to a degree where–if it gets under your skin for the right reasons–we immediately want to venture back for intense rewatches time and again. 

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To live in this world is to find comfort in disorientation.  Dwelling in an arena where everyone talks at once; where the camera lingers in a room yet never stops moving; where our leading man is always trying to think two moves ahead; where layer after layer sets atop another to a point we know exactly what’s happening but staggering to consider the intense high jinks that got us there and how the hell it could still feel organic. It’s mania. A cacophony of sound, synthesizer, deeply flawed, loud characters, and overcrowded claustrophobic spaces.

The level of world building the Safdies deliver is unreal and approachable all at the same time. With the intentional disruption and–yes–even confusion, it’s a testament to damn-near perfect sound mixing. In a year that saw the world’s biggest action-packed comic book blockbuster of all-time (and another Star Wars movie to boot) is pretty remarkable to consider Uncut Gems still feels like the Oscar frontrunner in that regard.  Because it all fits; it all feels exactly as it should.

The disorientation is welcome, even expected, and deployed masterfully.  We strap in to this turbulent ride without helmets or safeguards doing so with a guilty smile on our faces and politely demand more when it’s all done.  That’s a vivid experience of which we rarely see and it feels as though the Safdies crafted it in such a way that we appreciate the ride in the moment and are deeply grateful for something this darkly, enveloping days after the fact.  This one is a testament to clarity of vision, world fashioning, and a true understanding of the unique experiences only cinema can provide. Uncut Gems is a comedy-drama-thriller-sports-tragedy-hustler flick in every distinct regard.

Notably, the cast from top-to-bottom is pure electricity. With admirable nods to the likes of Parasite, Little Women, and Knives Out, Sandler anchors a full squad of talented new-comers (the arrival of Julia Fox akin to Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street level of iconic), solid vets (again I say, if Lakeith Stanfield is in it you watch it, period), and unkempt “real-lifers” that brings one of the most energetic ensemble performances of the season. NBA future hall-of-famer Kevin Garnett even found a way to bring his infamous, unmatched intensity to the screen in authentic but never comical fashion.  As much as it’s Sandler’s movie, the narrative solar system is possible because there isn’t a single weak spot for anyone garnering a close-up. A flawlessly diverse blend of familiar faces, unmatched energetic talent, and “that guys”. 

But of course Mr. Sandler is the stand out…and then some.

It should come as no surprise that Adam Sandler’s capable of uncanny variety and depth. His work in titles like Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and even Funny People display his understanding of what makes quirk so tragic; how humanity underneath it can be as attractive as it is blatantly imperfect.

Here, in the oddly specific Safdie arena, we find the best parts of Sandler’s odd-ball charisma, voracious vocal versatility, and commitment to authentic representation of the not-so-beloved everyman. The toothy grin, the building of tension, the posture and constant shifting, and that voice…his creation of Howard Ratner isn’t a transformation in the conventional sense but rather a physical embodiment of an energy, almost an entire subculture wrapped in the delicious packaging of a believable single person.

Of course, we’re not dumb enough to trust Ratner but through the vessel of Sandler’s genius we certainly believe the plausibility of every plan he casts, of every angle he grabs, of every interaction that feels like progress. And all through the lens of a dishonest degenerate we can’t help but feel captivated by.  A train wreck of mythical proportions and, in the spirit of this film, that couldn’t come as higher praise. Thanks to this achievement, we now live in a world where we un-ironically realize Sandler’s as the best performance of the year, period.

Naturally, this is the part where I yell:

“Give Adam Sandler the damn Oscar you cowards!”

Making it all possible with the vision and juice to fuel it…The Safdies.  Josh & Benny encapsulate an evolution from the detailed world building chops of the Coens and the vivid, nuanced framing of Lumet but, you know, turned-up to eleven and with a lot more synthesizer.  Champions of tone and color they’ve become known for sharing worlds that boast impeccable intentionality while, on the surface, appearing unfiltered. A lived-in quality that feels actual but spits in the face of feeling like home.  It’s truly wild to be granted entrance into something this obviously familiar but wildly alienating at the same time. Deployed through vigorous pacing and unapologetically overlapping dialogue, we are led by the camera through Howard’s eyes which means we never stop but it feels right–earned even–all at the same time.  Which would be an incredible achievement of production design and cinematography in their own rights, but what takes Benny & Josh to the next level are the strategic placement and in-tune treatment of key moments within the frenetic framework.  

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When KG feels the opal in his hands, shattering the showroom display it stands out as a small yet herculean moment poignant enough to carry weight; the energy captures everyone’s attention without sacrificing the pace.  Howard and Julia’s fiery blow-up from the club to the streetside cab anchors the turning point from Act II to III in passionate, unhinged fashion while the camera never stops moving. We still feel as though the next moves are rapidly arriving with the exchange still serving as a strong turn of both talent and narrative pillar. Idina’s stone-cold, perfectly sharp dismantling of Howard to his face, “I think you’re the most annoying person I’ve ever met”, a devastating blow that could’ve easily turned terribly comical in the wrong hands.  All the way to the bold climax…which is literally watching basketball on TV. And yet, it absolutely captivates everyone in the cinema to a literal heart-racing point.  The level of visionary, narrative and audio execution the Safdies flexed along the way is flat-out impressive. With Daniel Lopatin’s hypnotically overt synth-laced score for the cherry atop an unsettling immersion into sweet-and-salty mania.  

Coupling Sandler’s star power and career-defining performance with an addictive Safdie passion project, Uncut Gems has blazed new record-breaking trails for A24 on the indie scene.  Proof enough this film’s wild contagious energy wreaks havoc on our brains for all the right reasons.  This one is polarizing in the sense that it’s impossible to leave without an opinion–we’re going to feel something and feel it to an unsettling degree.  It’s simply a matter of where you land: Needing to revisit the dangerous high or flee the stress test that’s too much to handle. Either way, it’s a hell of a ride that won’t be forgotten.  Perhaps that may be the ultimate testament to the black opal’s grip. Because this one feels like a cult defining moment where the (mostly) millennial repeat watchers think in terms of life before Uncut Gems and life after.  

Truly, in the tractor beam of this lone film, the Safdies are maestros of curated chaos.  Inject all of this glorious, symphonic mayhem into my veins. 

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