Adam Sandler stars as a hyperkinetic gambler in this New York City drama about gambling that perfectly captures the anxiety of the city
Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett
Directed by: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Running time: 135 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
The new Adam Sandler movie, Uncut Gems, is about as close as you can get — as close as you’d want to get — to an actual nervous breakdown. It’s frantic, loud, and several kinds of –pulsive, including (but not limited to) pro-, com- and re-. It’s an astonished portrait of a man about whom his own wife says, “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met,” and in Sandler it has found its ideal representation. Sandler has made a living out of being impossible, but while he may have been more obnoxious, he’s never been so fully, so artistically, committed to the notion.
He plays Howard Ratner, a jeweler and addicted gambler in New York City whose life is bound up in complicated basketball bets, purloined Rolex watches, thugs trying to collect his unpaid debts from previous wagers and wise guy acquaintances whom he’s trying to scam to keep the loan sharks, including his own brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) at bay. His life is like a giant Ponzi scheme, robbing Peter to pay Paul and then stopping at the bookie’s joint on the way because he’s got a hunch.
Howard’s personal life is equally anxious. He lives in Long Island with his wife (Idrina Menzel) and children, but has a second life in his apartment in the city, where his sexy girlfriend (Julia Fox) lounges around in seductive underwear. Since he’s also usually on the way to delay a debt, or make a bet, or deliver a piece of jewelry, or pick one up, or dodge his creditors, his visits are brief. They’re also noisy: Uncut Gems has a soundscape (the score is by Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) made up of electronic music, rap, atonal classical riffs, and shouted imprecations. Howard carries on several conversations simultaneously, some by cellphone and some in person, and all of them with a whiny edge of angry obscenity as he tries to balance, negotiate, ingratiate and — every once in a while — eat something.
Things change when Howard receives a package from Africa. Hidden inside a whole fish is a large chunk of rock in which are embedded several valuable opals that shimmer with psychedelic promise. The movie opens in Ethiopia with the discovery of the gem, its shimmering magic vibrating as the camera delves inside its mysteries and dissolves into a view of Howard’s you-are-there colonoscopy several years later. It’s one of those metaphors you probably don’t want to think about, but it is typical of the bravura, no-holds barred chutzpah of its directors, brothers Benny and Josh Safdie. Their gritty tales of urban angst (Good Time) bring to mind an ear-splitting version of something the Coen brothers might have invented, one of those seriocomic disasters were everything goes wrong for the deluded protagonists.
The plot kicks into gear when a basketball star (Kevin Garnett, the former Boston Celtics forward, playing himself) visits the jewelry store and falls in love with the uncut gem that he believes will bring him luck on the court. Howard lets him take it for a couple of days for a sort of test drive, but he needs it back soon because he’s going to sell it and solve all his problems. Uncut Gems is the kind of movie where the infusion of a mere $1 million or so in cash will fix everything, although getting it from here to there without passing a casino might prove to be a problem.
The cacophony of the film is accentuated with a few beautifully observed scenes of the failed life Howard is running a couple of steps behind. We learn that he’s about to break up with his wife just as soon as Passover is ended — the insinuation of a Jewish holiday into the chaos of Howard’s life further underlines its entropy — and it adds a note of melancholy to his relationships with his teenage son, who shares with dad a fanaticism for basketball, and his distant daughter, with whom he has a sad attempt at reconciliation (“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, so . . .”)
There’s really no one here to root for, but you’re carried along by the Safdies’ kinetic, on-the-run filmmaking and Sandler’s strangely tender performance. Howard is a liar, a cheat, and an amoral hustler, but he’s also that most venerable of movie heroes, the American dreamer, albeit one who makes you squirm. Howard is terrible, but when the plot eventually hinges on the outcome of a basketball game — the confluence of Jews, blacks and hoops situates the movie firmly in the world of a dangerous, sports-living culture — you can’t help but get involved in the drama. It’s both artificial and life-and-death. Who could resist?
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