Think of Adam Sandler. What comes to mind?
A certain genre of low brow comedy filled with plenty of shouting and fart jokes, right? As true as that may be, “Uncut Gems” will make you reconsider every preconceived notion of Sandler you’ve ever had, because it’s unlike anything he’s ever done.
The Safdie brothers’ exhilarating and anxiety-inducing thriller is like an adrenaline shot straight to the chest — and without Sandler, none of it would work.
“Uncut Gems” follows larger-than-life New York jeweler and degenerate gambler Howard Ratner (Sandler) as he tries to scheme his way to the ultimate score. After obtaining a rare Ethiopian black opal, Howard plans to flip the gemstone for over a million dollars, but things begin to get messy as he attempts to balance his business, crumbling family life, and a number of violent debt collectors looking for their money.
As everything simultaneously closes in on Howard, Sandler delivers an iconic and exhilarating performance as the fast-talking Diamond District dealer. Long gone are the obnoxious accents and crude humor, and so too is any recollection of what Sandler may have represented in the past. Howard is so charismatic and hypnotic that it would have been easy for Sandler to slip back into his comfort zone and turn the character into a caricature, but instead, he portrays him with a level of nuance we’ve never seen. As much as Howard wants to escape his hectic lifestyle, his erratic and self-destructive choices say otherwise, digging him into deeper trouble. By the end of the film’s first act it’s clear: Howard doesn’t want to change. He thrives in the mayhem – and so do the Safdies.
The directing duo takes one deep breath at the film’s start and they don’t exhale until the credits roll.
As chaotic as Howard’s life may seem from afar, “Uncut Gems” gives viewers the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. It’s clear there is no time to waste. From the very start, you’re in for whatever trouble Howard gets into, as the film takes you on each of his nonstop exploits without ever coming up for air. For every single one of Howard’s never-ending schemes, the Safdies thrust viewers directly into the confrontation with extreme close ups, follow shots and an overwhelming amount of noise – whether it’s the constant shouting, the jewelry store buzzer, or the continuous electro-score and soundtrack.
Some movies call for tissues, others need 3D glasses. This one should come with a complimentary stress ball, or else you’ll end up like me – with a sore face from the relentless squeezing “Uncut Gems” requires.
Whether it’s the visual claustrophobia or the constant intensity, it’s clear this an intentionally stressful film straight from the start, and A24 has had no shortage of those this year. From “Midsommar” to “Waves” and now this, the indie studio was absolutely bringing the chaotic energy to the big screen in 2019. It even seeped over into television with “Euphoria” getting in on the action.
As extraordinary as Sandler is, the supporting cast holds its own – particularly newcomer Julia Fox, who plays Howard’s mistress, also named Julia. Fox is the perfect blend of sassy, sultry and sincere, and the only one onscreen capable of matching Sandler’s insanity. Fox is joined by LaKeith Stanfield, Eric Bogosian and Idina Menzel, who each turn in captivating performances in their limited screen time. The biggest surprise performance, however, comes from NBA legend Kevin Garnett as himself. Set in 2012, the film puts Garnett in his Boston Celtics prime, and he delivers on the court and the screen. It’s the definition long shot, but A24 is pushing KG as a Best Supporting Actor contender… Who knew the big man had it in him?
Sooner or later, Howard’s luck is bound to run out. That’s just the nature of his high risk, high reward lifestyle. But knowing that from the get go doesn’t make it any less shocking when it all ultimately comes crashing down.
“Uncut Gems” is 135 minutes of pure anxiety-inducing chaos, and I mean that in the very best way possible. It’s incredibly, frenetically paced, anchored by a career-best performance by Sandler and a top-tier supporting cast. After this, Sandler demands to be in the middle of the Best Actor discussion once it comes to a peak in February. At the very least, he deserves a nomination.
It may not scream happy holidays, but “Uncut Gems” is the best thing you’ll see at the box office this December.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.