What would happen if you made a Tarantino film with looser, more natural dialogue, and a singular focus? You’d have “Uncut Gems.” In their followup to 2017’s resonate indie “Good Time,” the brothers Safdie, Benny and Josh, direct and co-write one of the year’s most unique and engaging films. And they do the magic built around an award-worthy performance by none-other-than notorious comedic actor Adam Sandler.
Certainly not a Christmas movie, “Uncut Gems” has Sandler playing enterprising New York jeweler Howard Ratner. Howard is continuously risking everything for the next big score. As his personal life is falling apart, he puts his financial hopes on a rare rock containing several huge opals.
And when NBA basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself) shows interest in the stone, he’s sure to make a mint. But Howard’s other problems intercede. The vindictive Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his henchmen frustrate any chance of success.
“Uncut Gems” is a monster of a movie. The action is continuous as Howard bounces all over town, attempting to avoid danger and make his mark. Sandler impresses, playing Howard as a driven dreamer and eternal optimist. Even if you dislike the comedian’s farcical work, you will have a hard time turning this film away.
The style and approach to filmmaking that the Safdie’s have adopted is infectious.
Some viewers will be distracted by the gritty, dirty look of the movie and its Altman-esque sound design. Like the late director Robert Altman’s movies (see 1974’s “California Split”), the audio track contains an earthy mix of constant background noise and chatter.
The environments on display are a combination of real and fictional. In an IMDB trailer commentary with the directors, they point out how they used real New York jeweler personalities and shot on open city streets. You cannot be sure what is real and what is imaginary.
The run-and-gun strategy had to be difficult for the actors, such as Sandler, used to more controlled conditions. However, given their lead’s standup comedy history, a fact that the Safdie’s often point to in interviews, Sandler’s ability to roll with the uncertainties is part of the film’s charm.
And Sandler’s incarnation as Howard is something of a masterstroke. With a narrative set in 2012, the makeup, wardrobe, and hair take Sandler back to that time. He looks bloated, terrible, cheesy, but his smile and shark-like forward movement leave the haters in the dust. This unflattering depiction often has Sandler looking beaten, bloodied, and bruised, not like some sexy action star but as a depressed loser. Then there’s Sandler’s crooked, toothy, mischievous grin to remind us that Howard lives for a dangerous level of risk-taking.
The Safdies are students of cinema history, populating their movie with a multifarious combination of past and present talent. We get “Talk Radio’s” Eric Bogosian as a ruthless loan shark. “Atlanta” and “Sorry to Bother You” star Lakeith Stanfield plays a connected conman, who partners with Howard. Idina Menzel (yes, “Frozen’s” Elsa) plays Howard’s jilted wife. And veteran actor Judd Hirsch is a vital family patriarch.
On top of that, the Safdie’s convince NBA superstar Kevin Garnett to play himself. And Canadia hit singer The Weeknd is a twisted version of his 2012 self, as well. These elements and the loose, improvisational method work to deliver one of the most entertaining, authentic, and brutal depictions of gambling addiction to hit the screen since Paul Newman played Fast Eddie.
After the rollicking press screening for this one, critics couldn’t believe how much energy is displayed on-screen. Walking out of the theater, I remarked that it was like going to the gym. “Uncut Gems” is uproarious entertainment with a message begging to be decoded on repeat viewing.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com