If you know New York, you know its beauty is entwined with its ugliness: The scaffolding that obscures the elegant storefront, the traffic cones that zigzag haphazardly along the pretty historic street, even the intricate cast latticework on the lowly manhole covers. A city that’s moving and changing every day can’t be conventionally shiny and alluring every minute, and if nothing else, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems captures New York’s particular brand of dirty glamour. It’s big Pizza Rat energy in movie form.
But is energy enough? Uncut Gems is terrifically effective as you’re watching it, though its aroma—unlike streetside garbage in the summer—might not linger. The Safdie brothers specialize in gritty yet vaguely romanticized sagas of the street; their last movie was the 2017 Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as a small-time crook who tries to get his brother out of jail after a robbery gone wrong. Uncut Gems, an intricate odyssey that moves fast and takes hairpin turns, is a more ambitious picture, though perhaps not a better one. The Safdies are a little too enamored with the unvarnished New York cinema of the 1970s, and Uncut Gems often feels self-consciously retro; it’s a tourist in the world of movies like Mean Streets and The French Connection, hoping it’s packed the right clothes to blend in. (Martin Scorsese, incidentally, is one of the film’s producers.) There’s a gimmicky quality to Uncut Gems that you can sense even in its synth-heavy ’80s-style score (by Daniel Lopatin). It’s probably intended as ironically nostalgic, though it mostly comes off as some noodly thing your dad worked out on his new keyboard.
And yet it’s hard to turn away from the performance at Uncut Gems’ center: Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a diamond-district wheeler-dealer and compulsive gambler who’s racing the clock to pay off his mountainous debts. He thinks he’s finally solved his problem when a massive, bumpy rock arrives at his showroom: It’s a rare black opal, the product of a mine in Ethiopia, and he’s been waiting months for its arrival—it shows up inside a fish packed on ice, so you know right away there’s something not-quite-legit about it.
Howard’s plan is to sell off the opal immediately to get a loan shark—played, with menacing oiliness, by Eric Bogosian—off his tail. He seems eager to get the whole business over with, yet there’s a new detour every minute. His behavior suggests that he can never stop pouring whatever money he has into bets that he’s sure will bring bigger and bigger payoffs. You can see why he needs the dough: He has a big house in Long Island, a few kids, and a blasé wife (Idina Menzel). Then there’s his comely mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who’s also one of his showroom employees—she lives in the apartment Howard keeps in Manhattan, a sleek showplace with a primo stereo system and costly-tacky neon décor. Howard has got to unload that rock. But his plans are derailed when the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett (playing himself) turns up at the showroom to buy some bling and instead becomes obsessed with the opal, coming to believe it brings him luck on the court. Howard reluctantly lends it to him, and then has a devil of a time getting it back, even as the thugs who’ve lent him money breathe ever more hotly down his neck.
Howard runs all over town and beyond, pawning a glitzy championship ring here and placing a high rollers’ bet there. The movie’s pace is dizzying—the city and its environs, as shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, bobble past in a peripatetic whirl. The Safdies aren’t wholly lacking in wit: In one of the movie’s cleverest scenes, Howard, happy and horny after winning big (or thinking he has), arrives at the empty apartment and texts Julia to find out where she is. When she says she’s steps away, he tells her he’s en route himself, then hides in the closet to wait for her—he spies on her as she strips down to her luxe unmentionables, texting sweet, naughty nothings to her before popping out to surprise her.
Sandler makes it all work, wheeling through the picture in a hurried, slumpy slouch, his worn-in leather jacket drooping off his shoulders. Howard favors bright or satiny shirts and changes them often; you never see him with wet armpits, but you can almost smell their dampness. Every few years or so critics and moviegoers trumpet the “discovery” that Sandler is a fine, serious actor, but there’s no longer a need to make the case. He was terrific in Noah Baumbach’s 2017 The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and he’s the heartbeat of Uncut Gems. Sandler has perfected the art of talk-smiling through his teeth, barely moving his lips, and it’s perfect for Howard: He’s a guy who’s always hustling, because to stop would be a kind of death. He shows what he’s feeling by trying to hide what he’s feeling. He’s extreme, but he’s also for real. And his is the shtick you keep buying even when the movie around him tempts you with cheaper, shinier stuff.
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