UNCUT GEMS Review: Crazier The Bet, Bigger The Reward

2019 saved its most intense movie for last.

2019 was a year of troubling themes - corruption, hate, racism, fear, greed - but chief among them was this: it seems as though we, as a people, no longer share the same basic facts or reality. This was a year spent watching politicians and celebrities and social media all-stars doubling (and, indeed, tripling or quadrupling) down at a furious clip, never willing to admit that they'd done the wrong thing, said something offensive, or simply found themselves in over their heads thanks to a series of bad choices. Doubling down on whatever bullshit you're spewing is the new "Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?", a defensive maneuver so painfully transparent and easily disproven that one couldn't help but stand in awed wonder this year when, time and again, some of the most powerful people in the world would employ this tactic...and more or less get away with it. Sometimes repeatedly! 

Perhaps the Safdie Brothers, Benny and Josh (who directed 2017's blistering, ferocious Good Time) saw all of this coming. Maybe they knew that 2019 would be The Year of Doubling Down, and decided that now would be the perfect time to unleash the anti-hero this period in American history all but demands: Howard Ratner, the wheeling, dealing, frequently-screaming, hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth diamond retailer at the heart of the two-hour panic attack known as Uncut Gems.

As played by Adam Sandler (a truly inspired casting choice that results in a new career-high for the Sandman), Howard is 2019 in the flesh, a swaggering cartoon whose only real loyalty lies within the high of immediate gratification. Howard doesn't think more than one or two steps ahead at any given time. He doesn't worry about how he'll explain away any of his easily disproven lies, or where the line of credit he's taken out on his own ass might end - he's only worried about winning, even if the victory is guaranteed to be fleeting. Everything else is secondary. And when the shit hits the fan, well, he'll either talk or buy his way out of it and everything will keep chugging along just as it always has. We might not all know someone exactly like Howard Ratner, but we all know a guy who's at least a little like Howard.

Anyway, the year is 2012. Howard Ratner runs a jewelry store in New York's Diamond District, where money and screaming are the preferred methods of communication. One day, Howard gets his hands on an uncut opal from Ethiopia, and instantly the gears start to turn in Howard's head. His plan is to auction the rock off, hoping to collect a cool one million dollars from the flip, but then the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett (playing himself and doing a damn good job of it) gets brought into his store, and he asks Howard if he can hold onto the stone overnight, a good luck charm for the game he's about to play. Howard agrees, but asks for a bit of collateral, something to make sure he gets the opal back: Garnett's championship ring. Garnett agrees, hands over the ring, leaves Howard's store with the opal, and Howard immediately pawns Garnett's ring (which he plans to buy back with the winnings he'll earn by betting on that same game). It's our first real indication that something is deeply wrong with Howard, and it's just the first of many things he'll do over the course of the film that will have you screaming "What? No, why?!" at the screen. 

The bulk of Uncut Gems deals with Howard embroiling himself in these sorts of dangerous, clearly-doomed scenarios. In addition to the deal he has in place with Garnett, Howard's also in dutch with his loan shark brother-in-law, Arno (an exquisite Eric Bogosian, just radiating exhaustion and anger in Howard's direction at all times), and dealing with trouble on the homefront thanks to his complete inability to stay faithful to his wife, Dinah (an also-excellent Idina Menzel). Sometimes these assorted problems converge, as when Arno and his goons show up at a school recital Howard's daughter is performing in; sometimes the film allows its attentions to focus on them individually for a while. The cumulative effect for the audience is one of feeling like you're trapped in the eye of a full-blown hurricane, its terrible winds circulating all of Howard's poor choices and mounting debts like so many uprooted cars and sparking power lines. The question isn't really if the eye of that hurricane will ever close, but when, and how.

And lemme tell you: this is a dizzying, intense experience. No other movie I saw this year electrified me in the same way that Uncut Gems did. On every conceivable level - from the pitch-perfect performances to the rat-a-tat dialogue to the razor-sharp editing to the truly hypnotic score from Oneohtrix Point Never - Uncut Gems is a goddamn powerhouse. It says something that in a year overflowing with excellent, challenging, breathtaking and thought-provoking movies, Uncut Gems became my absolute favorite after just one viewing (an opinion that has only been further cemented by my second and third viewings). I cannot honestly tell you that the Safdies have made a film that'll be for everyone - I am, in fact, reasonably certain that Uncut Gems would give someone like my dad a heart attack -  but for those of you with a taste for intensity and an abiding interest in cinematic extremes, I cannot recommend Uncut Gems enough. It may just be the movie you've been waiting for all year.