Adam Sandler has portrayed many obnoxious, self-absorbed figures throughout his career, but with Uncut Gems, he plays the most despicable character he’s embodied thus far. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s follow-up to their 2017 effort Good Time is on that same wavelength — abrasive, deranged, driven by an uncontainable blur of movement and noise. It’s also a riveting high-wire act, pairing cosmic visuals with the gritty energy of a dark psychological thriller and sudden bursts of farcical comedy, and it’s the first movie to truly commune with Sandler’s performative strengths since Punch-Drunk Love. If Uncut Gems leaves people rattled, disoriented, grasping for clarity in the chaos of one man’s hectic routine, it all speaks to the sheer precision of a visionary achievement in the full control of its creators. After all, it is a Safdie brothers movie. Ever since 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, these sibling filmmakers have shined at burrowing inside the mindset of explosive characters driven to self destructive tendencies just to survive another day. The dysfunctional father of Daddy Longlegs may as well exist in the same restless universe as the furious junkies in Heaven Knows What and Robert Pattinson’s hapless criminal and loving brother in Good Time. With Uncut Gems, the Safdies add another destructive creation to their jittery New York City environment, and it’s a hypnotic blast to watch him come to life.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a fast-talking jeweler who lives his life in a state of constant, self-inflicted chaos always chasing the next big score. He barrels into every scene as if he’s dodging bullets and mounting attacks all at once. Ratner’s claustrophobic shop in Manhattan’s diamond district matches his ramshackle presence: the bullet-proof glass doors have a buzzer that barely works, and often leave clients hopelessly trapped on the wrong side. (The Safdie’s also ingeniously capture Howard’s presence through, for the most part, going on a steadicam or being on a dolly with the camera when he’s on the showroom floor, as he’s cool and confident, and then going handheld with the camera when he’s in his back office, as the façade is gone and he’s unraveling over his debts.) Howard juggles calls from angry mobsters and bookies, shrugs off domestic squabbles with his infuriated wife (Idina Menzel), and sneaks to his apartment for late-night rendezvous with his girlfriend (a fantastic Julia Fox), who also happens to work for him.
Howard is a gambler in the purest sense. He’s not just hooked on the wins. He’s a junkie for the uncertainty, high on the queasy death-wish apprehension of impossible odds. He’s a winner, who never wins. Often striking out from his base of operations, the aforementioned jewelry shop where he hocks blinged Furbies to the celebrities guided his way by an unofficial business partner, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard has a constant stream of cash running from the pawnbrokers to the bookies. He owes money all over town, but bets every cent he gets his mitts on — a habit that’s put him in the crosshairs of some impatient lenders with hired muscle. They’re not the only ones totally exasperated by Howard and his self-destructive self-absorption. “You’re just about the most annoying person I’ve ever met,” his wife says, right to his face. But Howard thrives in the mayhem, as the film’s opening minutes make clear, with cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera swirling around the figure as he goes about his wild days; a remarkable percussive score by Daniel Lopatin overwhelms the constant noise of action. Together, if those two elements were all the movie had to offer, the endurance test might’ve possibly had its limits.
But by then, however, it’s clear that the Safdies (and their writing partner, Ronald Bronstein) have more ambitious plans: an awe-inspiring prologue, set in the shadowy depths of an Ethiopian mine, chronicles the discovery of a costly rock filled with shimmering black Opals. The ominous sequence suggests a hat-tip to Indiana Jones, at least until the movie turns psychedelic. The camera zooms closer and closer to the rainbow-colored gemstone and then keeps going, veering inside their fibers and molecular architecture as if channeling the star gate in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as the shot resolves itself we realize we’re staring at the inside of a colon; Howard’s colon to be exact, as he’s having a colonoscopy. It establishes the magic and power that the gemstone has already burrowed itself into Howard, epitomizing his desire to possess otherworldly power as his actual world constantly unravels.
Set in a very particular time of 2012, if for no other reason than to allow former Celtics forward Kevin Garnett to play himself as an active player (Garnett retired in 2016) and to also revolve around that year’s Eastern Conference finals, Garnett is brought to Howard’s shop by Demany and finds himself drawn to the beauty of the black Opal that Howard shows to him just to gloat. Howard doesn’t want to sell the object, but allows Garnett to take it home for the night for good luck on his next game. For insurance, Howard secures Garnett’s 2008 championship ring, then abruptly pawns it off to bet big on the next game. That insane pileup of choices becomes a house of cards that collapses in delirious slow motion over the next two-plus hours. The film’s roaring dramatic and comic engine is Howard’s impulse control issue, his inability to stop making the wrong decisions. You watch the stomach-churning dread usually reserved for people in horror movies wandering jovially into mortal danger. But its early on, when the Safdies establish a ticking-clock deadline and then proceed to have their hapless protagonist completely ignore it, that the film becomes an ingenious assault on the nerves.
A goateed hustler with glittery diamond earrings who never seems capable of calming down, Howard is a mess, to put it lightly. His neuroses compel him to work through every new challenge in his quest to realize a twisted American dream. That quest seems to meld Mean Streets but told by Preston Sturges (the mythic and parabolic manners are clear), with a dash of Robert Altman and Death of a Salesman to boot. While Good Time unfolded as a linear chronicle of one troubled night, Uncut Gems speeds through Howard’s life as a cascade of clashing moments. The Safdies’ ability to string these sequences together without taking a single breather is one of the biggest directorial feats I’ve seen this year and an absolute narrative marvel to behold: Howard goes from an impromptu Philly road-trip to watching his kid in a bizarre school play, dodging gangsters in the parking lot, pushing back against a looming divorce during the family’s Passover seder, arguing with a bookie (Eric Bogosian) and talking a baffled family friend (Judd Hirsch) into helping him rig an ill-fated auction. Yeah, it’s a lot.
These circumstances stack up real quick and with an astonishing kinetic energy. The Safdies clearly admire Robert Altman (the overlapping dialogue is all over Uncut Gems), but they’re more precisely operating within the seedy mirage of New York as it once looked in the ’70s and ’80s and was made famous by Martin Scorsese (who serves as an executive producer here). Uncut Gems, though, may be the closest the Safdies have gotten to mainstream entertainment, but even that may be going too far; their style is still confrontational and flagrantly grimy underground, even with a cinematographer like Darius Khondji, providing the mucky, claustrophobic 35mm anamorphic close-ups.
In the film’s final forty-five minutes, we witness Howard’s foolhardy filtration with ruin in a state of shocked disbelief that borders on admiration and queasy thrills. There’s a genuine subversive glee involved in following Howard through his inane quest for all the money he can score, and watching him set himself up for failure with such conviction the whole way through. Sandler’s electric performance is the key to all of this, as he brings us right into Howard’s dynamic joy, putting everything on the line, consequences be damned. Howard may be doomed from the start, but in the process of resisting his inevitable fate, Uncut Gems makes his ludicrous plan infectious. By the end, you want to hurl and cheer. A fairy tale coated in acid and financial insecurity, Uncut Gems‘ bruising, anxiety-driven journey finds a live-wire Adam Sandler leading the way as the Safdies cement themselves as maestros of jittery, high-wire narratives.