by Alan Yudman
I heard someone describe UNCUT GEMS as a two-hour long heart attack. Hard to argue. This is a manic story of a schemer who thinks he has pulled off the ultimate score, only to be thwarted at every turn.
The movie, directed by the Safdie Brothers and co-written along with Ronald Bronstein, is a non-stop trip into the world of Howard Ratner (the wonderful Adam Sandler), a New York jewelry merchant who goes through life at a pace that could only be described as frenetic. The only time he seems to slow down during the entire run time of the movie is when he is having a colonoscopy and at the very end
Howard has managed to smuggle a rare black opal into the country, and he plans to auction it off and make millions. But between his dream and reality stands a superstitious NBA Superstar (Kevin Garnett), a loan shark to whom he owes money, his girlfriend, his wife, his partner in hustling up business and his own inability to stop trying to play everyone and everything.
Sandler’s fidgety, obsessive performance is the highlight of the film. I read that the Safdies wanted Jonah Hill at one point, then considered Harvey Keitel at another. This would not be the same film without Sandler. He seems to coast through movies like GROWN UPS, LITTLE NICKY, JACK AND JILL, etc. Maybe he’s just that good an actor, but he seems to put little or no effort into those roles – like he is barely making an effort. Then you watch Sandler in a movie like this or THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES or PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and you see a guy who can inhabit a role almost as much as say, Joaquin Phoenix. This is the Adam Sandler I am here for. The guy who seems beaten down by life but is either too desperate, stupid or obsessed to see what a mess he is making. He shambles, lopes and slouches through every interaction. Talking too fast and making sense to almost no one but himself. No one else can see the big picture like Howard can. Sandler sells that better than any other actor I can think of could. Being ignored for a Best Actor Oscar nomination is almost a crime.
The supporting cast is excellent. Garnett plays himself, or a version of himself that he is totally ok with. Eric Bogosian as the loan shark (or bookie.. can’t really tell), relative newcomer Julia Fox as his gorgeous and needy girlfriend, Idina Menzel as his “ok, I’ve had enough of your shit” wife, LaKeith Stanfield as his hustle partner Demany, Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik as thugs, Judd Hirsch as his father-in-law and The Weekend as the worst version of himself all add to the off the rails vibe.
The ending of this movie is shocking. I’ll just leave that out there because to say anything more would be a spoiler.
That feeling of constant mania is due to the Bennie and Josh Safdie’s style that employs jittery camera work, fast cuts, dialogue on top of dialogue. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has trouble with anxiety. It’s all anxiety. But is it good? It’s not bad. I really like the Safdies’ GOOD TIME. They are expert at communicating a vibe while telling an interesting story. For me, the frenetic pace was a little too much. I felt I couldn’t just sit with what was happening before I got yanked into the next catastrophe. I mean it worked, but it’s not my favorite feeling. I can see why the Academy shunned this film, it’s not really their thing. The Safdies are an acquired taste. The more you keep trying it… the better you like it.