Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Sebastian Bear-McClard Directors: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie Screenplay: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie Cast: Adam Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Mike Francesca, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher and Abel Tesfaye Distributor: A24 Films
One can easily get exhausted just watching Adam Sandler go through his paces in Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” a non-stop odyssey of a man desperately trying to save himself as his personal and professional lives collapse around him. In its rough-edged style and frenetic pacing, it’s not unlike the brothers’ previous film, the ironically titled “Good Time,” in which Robert Pattinson played a skuzzy low-life named Connie who’ll stop at nothing to make a big score, eve n if it means using his mentally-impaired brother.
This time around, the central figure is Howard Ratner (Sandler)—an appropriately rodent-like name—who, in 2012, is running a chaotic jewelry shop in New York’s diamond district. He’s an inveterate sports gambler, heavily in hock to an increasingly impatient bookie Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose thugs, headed by his volatile lieutenant (Keith William Richards), are constantly on his tail despite the fact that Aron is his brother-in-law.
Howard also has problems at home: his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is well aware that he’s set up his mistress Julia (Julia Fox), who also works in his store, in an apartment in the city, and he even drags his son (Jonathan Aranbayev) into the fraught situation. Not that his relationship with Julia is any less troubled; when he suspects that she’s playing the field while leading him on, he tosses her out—though not for long.
In this midst of everything that’s closing in on him, Howard has an escape plan. He’s acquired a rock from an Ethiopian mine that’s encrusted with gems, and intends to sell it a prestigious auction, bringing in enough to cover his debts and then some. Naturally things do not go as he’d planned.
A major road bump in his scheme arises when his motor-mouthed assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, playing himself, into the shop to see the rock. The NBA player has a superstitious streak, and believes the stone will bring him luck in an upcoming game; Howard lets his borrow it but demands Garnett’s ring as collateral—which, hoping to make a quick profit, he pawns in order to place a bet on the game. Unfortunately, Arno quashes the bet, and Howard’s hope of an immediate payoff is lost. Everything now hangs on the auction, which of course does not go smoothly; in fact, Howard enlists his dubious but supportive father-in-law (Judd Hirsch) in an attempt to drive up Garnett’s bid.
That scheme goes awry too, though in the end Garnett buys the stone. In the last act, however, Howard’s gambling obsession gambling takes over as he debates whether to pay off Arno or risk everything—including his life—on one more risky bet. The outcome is a shocker, to say the least.
Sandler carries “Uncut Gems” with a ferocious performance. It’s not that he’s departed from his well-known frantic, man-child persona; instead he’s taken it to its utmost—you could say that he’s gone Sandlerissimo. But it’s certainly effective in this context. And the Safdies (along with co-writer Ronald Bronstein (who also edited, with Benny) and cinematographer Darius Khondji, have crafted some excruciatingly tense sequences for him, not just the auction and the final stand-off with Arno and his men, but a sequence set at a school talent show where Howard is threatened by Arno’s enforcers. They also generate considerable suspense )along with some dark comedy) in a familial Passover celebration where both Howard and Arno participate, watching one another warily, and effectively intercut some of Garnett’s actual NBA footage into the action.
The supporting cast are all excellent. Fox and Menzel evoke the emotional stress of the women struggling to deal with Howard in very different ways, while vets Hirsch and Bogosian inhabit their characters with their customary efficiency, and Richards brings real menace to the table. Stanfield makes the most of Demany’s loquaciousness, and Garnett shows none of the stiffness of celebrities from other fields trying their hand at acting.
“Uncut Gems” is a dark parable of a man driven by his demons to make self-destructive choices, likely to elicit radically divided audience reactions, though all will emerge from it feeling as if they’ve been put through as potent an emotional wringer as its protagonist.