Personally, I don’t like feeling unwelcomed anxiety while watching a movie. I’m not talking about the type of edge-of-your-seat suspense you get from a horror film or a thriller. Those experiences can be fun. And expected. I’m referring to actual stress. The stress I have enough of in my real life to look forward to living out someone else’s on the big screen. The stress of the suffocating over-stimulation of life’s seemingly inconvenient obstacles during the times we’re being tested the most and pushed to our absolute breaking point. The stress that you can’t escape from the entire 135 minute runtime of the Safdie brothers’ 2019 movie Uncut Gems.
We see this same type of perennial anxiety in directorial duo Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2017 drama Good Time. But that movie features a protagonist who actually has some control over his fate–at times too much control–which is ultimately the point of the movie. In Uncut Gems, however, Adam Sandler’s character Howard Ratner becomes buried under his frustrating lack of control. A chaos that we as an audience feel a little too much. And it’s exhausting.
Howard runs a jewelry shop in New York City’s diamond district. He’s heavily in debt to several different loan sharks, mostly because Howard is a gambling addict who uses these loans to bet on basketball games. When he loses, he takes out another loan, until eventually they all pile up and come to a head as we see here.
But this time he’s made somewhat of an investment. After months and months of painstaking work, he’s now acquired something called a black opal–an extremely rare gem from Ethiopia. He’s banking on it earning him over a million dollars at auction. This time, he’s actually made a smart investment on a sure thing, but a series of obstacles get in his way and make getting his return very difficult.
Although Sandler gives a truly immersive performance and buries himself within the part, a movie like this where our main protagonist’s life is crumbling around him as he’s catching no breaks, we need someone on his side for support. But everywhere Howard turns, he’s met with animosity. He’s likable enough to keep us invested, and Sandler’s natural charisma helps, but Howard is not a relatable enough character to truly ground the film. And unfortunately, we remain frustrated with literally everyone else surrounding him to the point where our blood boils. Mostly because Howard’s never does.
Howard never begs for sympathy, when, if anyone has the right to, it’s him. Perhaps this is to prove how self-assured he is. But to me, it only shows a convenient and unrealistic lack of communication for someone in such a dire and desperate situation. How is the audience more stressed out than the character, himself?
Every step of the way, the Safdies make sure every possible stressful thing happens to Howard. As though Howard is continuously building a house of cards, and as he’s readying to place the final card on top, someone comes along and knocks the whole thing down. But instead of getting mad, he just immediately starts from the bottom to build it all over again, just to have someone knock it down a second time. And a third. This happens over and over, to where I’m suddenly reminded of the definition of “insanity”. We want Howard to get angry. We want him to break, but that moment never actually comes. I guess it’s a testament to who he is as a character. But if that’s the case, then I’m losing my sympathy for him.
In a film about randomness and chance, many of the events feel far too calculated to be realistic. There are a couple of moments that make you smile, or even laugh, perhaps desperately trying to find relief amidst the over 2 hours of pure panic.
The story is delivered in a very unconventional way more akin to modern art house cinema than your typical wide release picture. But Uncut Gems is much cooler than that. Alongside Sandler, the Safdies have recruited some well known non-actors for the project. Kevin Garnett plays himself as one of Howard’s clients, and the main obstacle in him getting his precious rock back. The film is set in 2012, when Garnett was still an active NBA player, so a majority of the premise revolves around Howard betting on his games. Also playing himself is singer The Weeknd, who, as one character remarks, “Is gonna be big.”
The Safdies enjoy unveiling their plots as they go, which is commendable, but in Uncut Gems it feels like the directors are trying to convince us that this is a story worth telling. And perhaps on some deep, symbolic level it is, but we just can’t figure out how it’s worth being this hung up over.
The brothers, who also co-write the script with Ronald Bronstein, keep the narrative tight and build a world that’s stylistically deliberate, if not unique, but suffocates the audience far too much with their frenetic pacing and anxiety, never once letting up. As good as the Safdie brothers and Sandler are, Uncut Gems simply isn’t thoroughly enjoyable enough to walk away with an enthusiasm about.