Review: Is Uncut Gems Adam Sandler’s Diamond in the Rough?
Adam Sandler, a few other surprise performances, and some cinematic inventiveness set Uncut Gems apart enough, but is that all?
Uncut Gems is the newest offering from directing duo Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time) and is one everyone is talking about because of Adam Sandler’s unexpected turn. Sorting out my thoughts on this one, I admitted to myself I was enthralled and the film has a lot going for it. But I realize without the selling point of Sandler and his divergent performance, and the Safdies’ mesmerizing visual touches, this is another Gambler – a guy in over his head who can’t stop making bets.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a New York City jewelry dealer who gets his hands on a rare black opal cut from an Ethiopian mine. Ratner owes money all over town, including to his own family, but that doesn’t stop him from making bets on Celtics games and pawning stuff.
One piece of collateral is the NBA Championship ring of Celtic Kevin Garnett (himself) who shows an interest in the opal. Promising to sell it to the basketball star, Ratner plays keep-away with the rock and aims to make as much money as humanly possible. That takes a while and doesn’t please Garnett or anyone coming to collect on debts.
Ratner also has a wife (Idina Menzel), kids, and a mistress (newcomer Julia Fox) who works for him to complicate matters further.
It’s not a new story by any means but the Safdies’ presentation is remarkable. They take a passive approach with the camera that creates a documentary feel – the kind where the camera and filmmaker’s try not to judge a subject.
Ratner’s life is followed and chronicled and it gets personal yet I felt an emotional distance between myself as an observer and the life of Howard Ratner.
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The Safdies aren’t afraid to employ surrealist indie film play either. Visuals on the streets and in the high rises of New York tend toward neorealism and colorful noir. Other times you won’t be sure what you’re looking at. A zoom and journey into the texture of a diamond slowly turn into a view of Ratner’s intestines during a colonoscopy (I’m serious). Later, we’re given a quick-cut newsreel history of Ethiopian Jews and diamond mining. Uncut Gems isn’t like anything else you’ll see.
In another indie touch, scenes appear improvised which accentuates the feeling the performances are natural. That helps Adam Sandler bring out what he does. However, he doesn’t have to go as far with his transformation as Robert Pattinson did in Good Time.
When I hear Sandler is cast in a serious indie drama against type, the thought which pops in my head is Jonah Hill must’ve passed, right? The part of Ratner could’ve been written for Hill and Sandler landing a lead role like this sounds like something that happens when negotiations fall apart with the former – as in the case of The Batman and Penguin. However, it works out better than anyone predicted.
The other surprise is Julia Fox, the mistress/employee. Uncut Gems is her first major feature; she worked prior as a filmmaker and dominatrix (again, I’m serious, look her up). Fox is not only fetching, but she plays her part very well. You won’t think this is her first movie. If she doesn’t move onto bigger things, she will turn into one of those unanswered mysteries in show business of “what went wrong?” and what could’ve been.
Martin Scorsese turned down Joker since he’s not into comic book movies and the material was way too familiar but his name is on this – though that factoid is hardly mentioned. I guess Uncut Gems is more his speed; it’s more realistic and more gangster although I wouldn’t put it’s storytelling ahead of Joker. Scorsese missed the boat there and gets nominal credit here for his troubles.
Uncut Gems is a visual feast with nail-biting moments. It’s a movie the word “sensational” was made for. Would I see it again? Probably not. A lot happens in the first half only for the second to lag into a shock ending that’s a little out of nowhere. Good Time had a similar problem. Luckily, Gems is an upgrade but time will tell if it’s all that memorable.