Uncut Gems December 30, 2019
2 Hrs., 14 Mins.
t is sometimes said that certain people can turn their charm on and off like they had a kind of switch somewhere inside them. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), the anti-hero of Uncut Gems, has for himself the switch’s black sheep cousin: a red button that when pressed ensures every decision he subsequently makes poses the highest possible risk as well as the highest possible reward. At the bottom of the New York Diamond-District food
chain, Jewish jeweler Ratner is, on the side, a serial (and unlucky) gambler — a leather-wearing, veneer-having, hair-gel-slathered promise-maker who cried wolf. He never makes any money because any money he does make goes straight into the wallets of the men he owes. And if Ratner does make something, he’s immediately precarious with the new amount. A heap of cash becomes the latest object with which he can play a game of risk; fingers are always crossed for a payout that doubles, triples, quadruples the sum he has right now.
Uncut Gems is set in 2012 — the year during which Ratner got consumed by all his debts. At the beginning of the movie, though, he’s still misguidedly hopeful. Ratner has just purchased an uncut opal from an Ethiopia-based Jewish mining company, and he’s been led to believe that when sold at an auction scheduled for a few days down the road, it could get him something around $1 million. To his eye, this is a perfect way to pay off at once all his gambling debts, which at the moment are deliriously and dangerously high. But good ideas don’t necessarily beget ease.
The inevitably chaotic, heart attack of a journey to liberation Ratner will have in Uncut Gems is foreshadowed in a prologue set in 2010, on the grounds of that said Ethiopia-based mining company. Here we first see the rough and imperfect opal which will become the film’s McGuffin, hammered out of a sore spot in a cave. Here we also see a man being carried out of the mines with his leg super messed up, bone sticking out and everything. This of course makes clear the exploitative lengths to which the company has gone to get Ratner his saving grace of a rock; we know he’s bad before we even know for sure he’s bad. (He has no qualms about what it took to get him the gem.) But more conspicuously does the prologue tell us that in a movie like Uncut Gems, there is no such thing as a pain-free reward.
The film is full of wait-a-minutes and if-you-hold-on-you-won’t-regret-its. The movie — an odyssey played in nauseating fast motion — involves Ratner running away from the men he owes (the calls are so close it’s sometimes like he’s playing tag) while also juggling his funhouse-mirrored personal life. He has a wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel, a revelation), and their kids living in a house he’s never at in the suburbs. Dinah, a vision of barely-stifled anger, is divorcing Ratner, but is waiting to make the announcement until after Passover for the kids. This is hard, though, because nowadays Dinah really hates looking at and being around her husband. That doesn’t happen so much anyway, though, since typically Ratner is hustling or in his city apartment shared with his young mistress Julia (Julia Fox, another revelation). If Ratner is at home, he can’t put the fucking up on hold. He’s briefly kidnapped at one point in the film, for instance, by some of the men he’s indebted to in the hallway of his daughter’s school. (He’s there that evening for a play.) When they’re done with him, they lock him naked in the trunk of his car.
Because why not add insult to injury, basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing a fictitious version of himself) also really wants the opal for himself, serving as a sort of combatant leading up to the days of the auction. He’s convinced it’s a lucky charm after Ratner reluctantly agrees to let him borrow it for a night when Garnett visits his shop. And Ratner’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) has a bad habit of giving the silent treatment when he’s pushed, which is to say he’s giving the silent treatment most of the time. There are naturally more obstacles. But I think some of the fun of experiencing an obstacle course is having an idea of what you’re about to embark on rather than a full and detailed picture.
he praise so far for Uncut Gems — that on the whole it’s like filmic cardiac arrest, that it’s (in a nice invocation of the alignment system) “chaotic good” — is a tad hyperbolic. But in all rightly used hyperbole inherent is some truth. Indeed this is a stressful movie not beneath trying to induce audience heart palpitations, and it is both chaotic and good.
For newcomers to the filmmakers behind the movie, the fraternal
writer-director duo Josh and Benny Safdie, it might be a bit akin to experiencing whiplash. This isn’t just because of the busyness of the narrative but also because of the hyper-naturalism. Characters talk over each other and we hear sound as they would. (A foray into a club, where Julia is trying to make a deal with The Weeknd, before he got famous famous, sees our characters having to yell over the background noise, with us struggling to hear them, for instance.) When violence is inflicted, there’s a nihilistic crunch to it.
For fans of the brothers’ manically-energetic style, Uncut Gems is a solidification of the more-than-promise they showed with their previous movies and especially 2017’s Good Time, another perpetually anxious comic thriller in a state of arrested worst-case-scenario development. The Safdies impress us with the way they can keep an overtaxed storyline forever and ever on edge. But with Uncut Gems especially they evince themselves as young masters of milieu-making. Ratner’s nightmare world becomes ours.
That the actors in Uncut Gems sound ill-judged on the page (in store is a mixture of newcomers and unconventional mainstream choices) but are pretty spotless here point out a couple of things. One is that the Safdies saw something in them that a lot of us didn’t but should have and the other is that the Safdies are excellent enough of world-builders that anyone could believably populate them if correctly supported.
Sandler, almost unremittingly making horrible movies with his buddies, isn’t so much of a wild card since he’s been so good in his so-called “serious” movies à la Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017). (Even then he’ll astonish believers like myself: so possessed by Ratner is he — all awkwardly slick and stupid and desperate — that one yearns for a second-act career where he starts Daniel Day-Lewising around the clock rather than every few years.) But Menzel, better known as the Broadway-musical heavyweight and the voice of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen (2013), and Fox, a friend of the Safdies who has never before acted professionally, certainly are.
This gamble pays off. Menzel taps into a rarely seen (from her) ferocity that we get a kick out of. She’s a teeth-baring cheetah whose eyes are sore from all the rolling. Among the film’s best scenes is one involving her delivering an equal parts vicious and satisfying monologue while wearing her old bat mitzvah dress, which, to the delight of her family members, still fits. And Fox, revamping the mistress-as-a-second-fiddle cliché (in the movie her character also works with her lover and is crucial to his gains), is plainly having fun. She’s a street-smart hedonist we at once want to protect and also totally trust. We gather she is probably so enamored of the always-fucking-up Ratner not only because she believes him when he says that everything is going to be all right but also because she’s maybe never met someone else who outwardly shows his same self-assurance in the face of surefire ruin. His faith in himself is infectious; so is the possibility that she'll financially benefit from a long-awaited win, too.
Garnett is a trip as the Garnett manqué; there’s a moving earnestness in his portrayal of this other him.
Uncut Gems, spoiler alert, doesn’t end happily. For a time I thought that was a mistake. I wanted an orthodox “win.” But then I realized that a more traditionally optimistic finale would both undercut the film’s delectable sense of tragicomedy and perhaps be more depressing than what the film gives us anyway. If Ratner was to get the outcome he pined for, that’d be OK, I guess. But with the knowledge that he’d immediately screw up that outcome probably just hours later, after the screen fades to black, wouldn’t that be sadder? A happy ending might even possibly bring us to the silly but spiritually not-so-off interpretation that he’s actually in Hell — doomed to this ghastly cycle for an eternity. Any sort of release maybe is a good thing. A