Howard Ratner, a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime.
As soon as I heard that Adam Sandler was starring in an A24 film, I immediately got excited — I’ve seen Sandler prove himself by stepping out of the typical “goofy physical humor” tropes before in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. Here, Sandler delivers a completely new side of his acting skills; it feels like somewhere in between his charismatic and serious sides — except his character Howard is a criminal and a downright horrible person. He continuously cheats his buyers, put his gambling addiction above his family, and even cheats on his wife, but possibly the fact that he has a family is what ultimately grounds his character and gives us brief moments to sympathize for him when the terrible choices he’s made come back to bite him. Sandler is really able to take on a challenge like nothing in his career and really stuns, as he was certainly the right choice to play the part as the film ultimately proves. After watching Uncut Gems, you’ll never see Sandler the same way. Julia Fox is scene-stealing as Howie’s mistress, who not only conveys energy but she’s perhaps the only character who’s able to do kind and forgiving things in the entire film. Not only has she not had any prior acting experience, but neither has Kevin Garnett who is also great, starring as himself yet he’s able to make every scene of his engaging. Lakeith Stanfield, who proves himself over and over again, also has some strong moments in a minor role. Idina Menzel also does really well as Howie’s wife, who is reasonably fed up with his neglectful, reckless behavior.
The Safdie brothers certainly know how to make a film theirs. Every setting and character feel like they’re living in the Safdie’s world. They’ve clearly made themselves more than distinctive and their films really do feel like nothing ever made before, almost as if they’ve invented their own genre, or at least style. That said, although their style definitely feels new and authentic, with actors (and non-actors appearing in the film) yelling over each other and real setting being used, I wasn’t a big fan of their previous film, Good Time. Although Uncut Gems is definitely a lot more interesting, and the camerawork and music feel more fitting here, it still at times suffers from a lack of direction, especially in the middle part of the film. There’s some excellent sequences and creative filmmaking throughout, but at times, even in the film’s strongest moments, its elements work against each other — the script inserts uncomfortable “cringe humor” into scenes with opposing goals, like trying to be heartfelt or powerful. The Safdies once again try to push the boundaries of human senses even further — How loud and retro can this score get? How bad can we depict humans to be? How gross and unsettling can we make it? Hell, the movie even starts with a close-up of Sandler getting a colonoscopy. What business did this moment have being there, I still don’t know. It felt like these moments of weirdness or darkness sometimes didn’t add up to much or were there for the sake of it. Thankfully though, the climax feels far more engaging and rewarding than in their previous film, thanks to a more interesting buildup and multiple things going on in different locations with different characters, and we can actually care about what’ll end up happening to Howie, even though like I said, he messes up time after time and mistreats nearly everyone in his life. It’s those small moments Sandler and the script deliver that put us on his side when it comes to his major bets and successes. I just wish the film struggled less in finding a consistent direction and reason for us to care. This is different than every Sandler film and just about every film out there right now, so it isn’t hard to see how it would be off-putting to many, but if you know what you’re in for with the Safdie brothers, then you may be able to enjoy it — their vision has definitely left me thinking after the end. If only everything else wasn’t subordinate to the extravagant cast that gives it their all.