The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler in one of his rare dramatic roles – reminding us all of just how excellent he can be when Kevin James and David Spade are nowhere in sight. Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a schlubby but weirdly charismatic motormouth jeweller operating in New York’s diamond district. A series of increasingly risky gambles sends Howard into a spiral of debt and dangerous people, all while he struggles to juggle his wife and mistress, and desperately tries to hawk a priceless opal – which may or may not have magical powers.
Uncut Gems is an anxiety attack of a film. It never lets up and it’s only in the wake of the film’s climax that you remember to start breathing again. People talk over one another as Howard (Sandler) tries to juggle three or four things at once; his girlfriend, the money he owes to about five different people, his work colleagues, basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself), the door to his shop that won’t open, the doctor telling him that he may or may not have colon cancer, the bets he’s placed, and a precious opal that he thinks it worth at least a million dollars. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Howard is stressed and about to break – and the Safdie brothers make one hundred sure that you feel every ounce of that stress.
It’s trashy and kind of gross, in a thumping 90’s sort of way. And Sandler is perfect, with his shouty man-child shtick being used to excellent effect here. Howard is not exactly likeable. His decisions are definitely his own and they get more and more risky as the film goes on. There’s one crucial moment towards the end of the film where Howard has a choice; to either gamble it all or walk away. We see his eyes as he decides. But ultimately he’s addicted. He has a serious problem and there’s nothing he can do about it. The film is about addiction, yes, but it’s also a story of a man who has hit rock bottom and keeps on digging. All the crap has happened to him before the story begins; when we meet him, his wife is leaving him and he owes money to some very dangerous people. We don’t see him at his lowest ebb, that point has been and gone. We’re watching a man beyond his breaking point as he hurtles towards the inevitable.
The plot starts off simple, but begins to build and build like a snowball of cocaine flying down a hill. Howard is trying to sell his opal, but that’s just plot number one. It’s a testament to the Safdie brothers that they can keep all of these plates spinning and avoid a pile of crockery on the floor. They take us through the chintzy diamond district of New York, to swanky auction houses, to underground clubs where Howard ends up fighting The Weeknd. Weirdly, it makes me really want to visit New York, even if we don’t see it here in its best light. It just feels so alive, and I think that’s in part down to the decision to use non-actors alongside professional actors. You forget it’s Adam Sandler straight away. He’s just another wise guy interacting with real New Yorkers.
And if this review, or what you’ve read elsewhere, makes you think that you know what this film is going to be like, I promise you it isn’t at all like that. For starters, the score is this bizarre choral arrangement that seems at odds with the kinetic pace of the film yet works marvellously. There are a few trips inside the opal, in colourful CGI fever-dreams that are deeply affecting – somehow. On top of that, the film isn’t entirely without levity either. There are a number of very funny moments throughout, in my opinion. Some of the lines wouldn’t even be out of place in an ordinary Sandler project and raise the same sort of laugh (see him jump out of the wardrobe yelling in his New Yoik accent “I’M GONNA COME”).
In a similar way to 1917, this film is an experience. But somehow this film about a down-on-his-luck diamond salesman is more harrowing than the horrors of World War 1. It’s a real shame it’s been snubbed at the Oscars. I’m not sure if the voters just missed it, or didn’t consider it a proper film due to the presence of Sandler. But it’s a real once-in-a-lifetime performance and I don’t think he needs the plaudits.
It’s on Netflix soon, so check it out. But do it one breathless go. Don’t pause it. Go with it and remember to have a lie down after.
Reviewed by Jack