Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Joel and Bennie Safdie
Stars: Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Ca$h Out, The Weekend, LaKeith Stanfield, Tommy Kominik, Pom Klementieff, Tilda Swinton, Judd Hirsch, Natasha Lyonne, John Amos.
Following the success of their gritty crime drama the ironically titled Good Time (2017), which featured one of Robert Pattinson’s best performances as a small time crook, the Safdie brothers Josh and Bennie bring us another tense, uncompromisingly gritty and slow burn thriller infused with their usual street savvy edge and which builds to an unexpected finale. They bring a gritty Scorsese like energy to the material.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, cast against type) is a jeweller who works in New York’s famed diamond district and services a high-end clientele that includes rappers and sports stars. He is also a compulsive womaniser and a gambler who is always on the lookout for the next big score. He is heavily in debt to Arno (Eric Bogosian, from Talk Radio, etc) and a number of other loan sharks who would happily break bones to make a point about paying his debts. Howard thinks he is on winner when he comes into possession of a rock bearing uncut rare opals, smuggled out from a mine in Ethiopia inside a fish. He plans to sell it at auction for a million dollars.
Howard temporarily loans the opal to basketball star Kevin Garnett (the Boston Celtics star playing himself) as a good luck charm. But when Garnett fails to return the opal Howard finds himself in deep water. In desperation he calls in favours from a number of unsavoury characters to try and keep afloat. He takes enormous risks to try and capitalise on his money-making gamble and lets it all ride on one last desperate but lucrative gamble.
Adam Sandler has made a name for himself as the star of crass, dumb comedies, and while often hits at the box office they are probably not very satisfying or challenging dramatically. But in this relentless and tense drama from the Safdie brothers, he steps outside his comfort zone and delivers, arguably, the performance of his career. If Uncut Gems had been made thirty years ago it would easily have starred someone like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman. Fittingly, Sandler brings that same level of volatility, energy, sweaty intensity and profanity to the role of the self-destructive and unsympathetic Howard. He inhabits the character completely and effectively captures Howard’s increasing sense of desperation, anxiety and manic energy as he juggles many balls.
The Safdies have created a colourful cast of morally dubious characters that circle around Howard’s world. In a support role, Bogosian is terrific and brings an air of menace to his performance as Arno, the vicious loan shark who is also his brother in law. The cast also includes newcomer Julia Fox, who is good as Julia, Howard’s employee and mistress; LaKeith Stanfield (from the recent Knives Out, etc); Idina Menzel (from Frozen, etc as his embittered wife Dinah; as well as cameos from rappers Weekend, Ca$h Out and Trinidad James.
The Safdies and co-writer Ronald Bronstein have spent the better part of a decade rewriting and polishing the script as different basketball stars came and went. Because of the nature of the plot, the basketball games play a crucial role in the drama. They effectively ramp up the tension as Howard’s life begins to spectacularly unravel. Uncut Gems has been nicely shot in 35mm by Darius Khondji (Midnight In Paris, etc), who has shot the film on location on the bustling streets of New York itself. He also uses tracking shots and hand-held cameras to bring another level of energy to the material. He also suffuses the film with a bluish tint that recall the low budget noir dramas of the 80s.
Uncut Gems is the diamond in the rough of Sandler’s career.