You never know when Adam Sandler is going to emerge from lowbrow comedies set in tropical locales to really, really make something. But when he does, he sure collaborates with some fascinating artists. From Paul Thomas Anderson to Noah Baumbach to, now, Josh and Benny Safdie, directing brothers who have slowly but surely emerged into the larger cinematic conversation by making small but very effective, stylish films about what many would consider “real New Yorkers,” when Sandler gets serious, he also gets experimental. Just as the Safdies’ last film, Good Time, gave rise to career-best work from Robert Pattinson, Uncut Gems shows us an Adam Sandler we’ve never seen before.While most of the Billy Madison star’s serious roles have been about more meek men, his character here, Howard Ratner, a Jewish jewelry store owner in Midtown Manhattan with a gambling addiction, exudes nothing but confidence. His fatal flaw is putting trust in others to do as they say they’re going to do when it comes to precious jewels, as well as relying on luck and intuition to fill in his blanks when they don’t. Howard is a person desperate to live independently, he just needs to call in a few favors to do so.
Sandler’s big, loud take on Howard is perfect for the fast nature of New York’s jewel trading culture, but it’s also deceptive, as a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em moments and glances mine the character’s humanity for all its worth. The fact that Sandler is willing and entirely capable of going deep into Howard’s soul breathes life into the chaos of the film’s style.
Watch the trailer for Uncut Gems below:
The Safdie brothers continue to hone that here, employing rapid cuts, intense close-ups, harsh lighting, loads of neon, and a moody synth score to create a hectic, anxiety-inducing mood that assaults the senses until the film’s resolution. There’s a gorgeous grunge to the film reminiscent of 1970s Martin Scorsese, who fittingly serves as executive producer, as Uncut Gems winds up being a small-scale crime saga unafraid to dish out harsh realities, albeit with just enough heart. It’s an aggressive film, visually and spiritually, though one with characters better off than most of the Safdies’ other leads. More money onscreen and off gives them more room to play as artists, but there is just a hint of extra grime from Good Time or even indie gem Heaven Knows What that it’s hard not to miss. Even so, this film does virtually no harm to their growing and genuinely deserved auteur status.
The actual plot of the film revolves around Howard trying to get back a precious gem he bought from Ethiopian miners after he loans it to basketball star Kevin Garnett (who does a hilariously kooky riff on himself in an unusually sizable role). Uncut Gems slowly peels back the layers on just how many places Howard has money, as well as all the places he owes it, which lets the film unravel into a chaos of sad, unhealthy promises we can tell aren’t going to be fulfilled. Aside from Garnett, the rest of the supporting cast is strong as well. Idina Menzel, as Howard’s soon-to-be ex-wife, and Lakeith Stanfield, as the middle-man between Howard and Garnett, particularly stand out, as well as Eric Bogosian as one of the many people Howard owes money to, but with a unique emotional tie to him.
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The way the script evolves this story is shockingly cohesive, considering just about every scene has 10 conversations happening at once. The chaos of the content and the style does, however, make it take a while before we can get invested in Howard, so the first act and part of the second feel a bit like an emotional plateau. But in that period, it’s easy to just marvel at Sandler’s performance and all the different elements the Safdies are juggling at once. Most importantly, by the time we reach the insane third act, as tensions mount and characters take actions they cannot take back, we do come to really care for Howard.
The ending packs an emotional wallop, but is entirely satisfying and serves the characters right. Uncut Gems is ultimately a story about how you can’t trade good luck for goodwill, a lesson not every character learns by the end, and they suffer for it. But like a rare stone, films that combine down-to-Earth stakes and genuine emotional investment are hard to come by. The Safdie brothers have made another rough film, but once again there’s a diamond at the center of it.