In “Uncut Gems,” Adam Sandler receives the spotlight in the role of a lifetime. He plays Howard Ratner, a degenerate gambler, unfaithful husband and owner of KMH Gems and Jewelry in Manhattan’s Diamond District.
Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie are coming off of the success of their 2017 film “Good Time,” a New York City crime film about a bank robber, played by Robert Pattinson, who attempts to free his brother from prison. Both films are brutal tellings of crime and luxury set in New York. “Good Time” is a primer for the non-stop Category 5 sex, money and celebrity-filled hurricane that is “Uncut Gems.”
The film is relentless ― from the opening in an Ethiopian mine, the film snatches the viewer’s attention. Before you know it, you’re immersed deep in New York City’s all-cash-and-handshake Diamond District. As you follow Howard, you see his downward spiral as his “plan” is repeatedly torn to shreds. Words like “vig” and “parlay” become second nature to the audience as they go along for the ride. He runs from here to there, yelling greetings, taking calls, making deals, always moving amid jump cuts, zooms and lurid close-ups. The superb cinematography is by Darius Khondji, shooting on a 35-millimeter film.
Sandler’s true self disappears during his role as Howard Ratner, but he leaves enough of himself exposed to ensure the audience still sees his charisma underneath the Ferragamo belt and Cartier glasses. This makes him perfect to play Howard -- someone with little to no redeeming qualities because Sandler’s presence is charming, even if unintentional. Only an actor with the star power of Sandler tips this movie from a crime thriller to a dark comedy.
Howard regularly cheats on his wife, neglects his children, extorts his friends and continues the irrational behavior all the way until the end ― and yet the audience can’t help but side with him in the film’s final sequence.
Howard, from the start of the film, is being followed, beaten and stripped naked for money he owes around the city. The small but ever-so-present Diamond District, and more particularly Ratner’s store KMH Gems and Jewelry, are characters in the film. Tracking shots where viewers follow him from block to block, store to store provide a clear layout of the small chunk of Manhattan. His store is two floors; at the top of the stairs there is a vestibule where the guest must look into the camera to be buzzed in. This seems like a small detail, but the layout of this store is the main component of many jokes and sequences that range from hilarious to panic-inducing.
There have been a few movies in 2019 with items that seem to have mystical power: the light in “The Lighthouse,” the rock in “Parasite” and the love rune in “Midsommar.” In “Uncut Gems” the item is the black opal. A gem purchased by Howard from Ethiopia, the opal proves to have an ominous, near-magical and increasingly dangerous hold on everyone who comes in contact with it, such as NBA champion Kevin Garnett. Howard believes that the opal will save him — he plans to sell it at auction — but like good fortune, the precious lump keeps slipping from his grasp. For the most part, the Safdies seem to enjoy mucking up Howard’s plans, intensifying his rotten luck, bad choices, collapsing home life and squabbles, pointless or otherwise.
There are shots where the camera zooms into the opal and later Howard himself. These moments are evocative of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” monolith sequence featuring beautiful shapes and colors and eventually the stars. The uncut black opal is taken out of the earth and universe — made by randomness and chaos, just like Howard. The opal is gorgeous yet barbaric, and equally represents the universe as well as capitalism at its most exploitative.
The Safdies don’t judge Howard. Instead, they situate him in a specific historical moment. Like the black opal, the film manages to elude the viewer’s grasp. Every time one thinks they can breathe, the Safdie’s bring another sequence of loud, fast-cutting cinema that equals out to one of 2019’s best films. Bring your KMH Gems and Jewelry water because you’re going to need it after the final scene.
Prerequisites: “Good Time” and “Punch Drunk Love”