'Uncut Gems' is Adam Sandler's rendition of 'Diamonds are a Boy's Worst Friend'
Once, in high school, on Christmas break I ended up alone one night at the movies, and ever since then "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" has served as my working definition of least appropriate holiday picture ever.
Each generation deserves a new contender for that designation. Presto: "Uncut Gems," opening Dec. 25, arrives just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, you name it — it won't quite fit it.
The latest nerve-shredder from Josh and Benny Safdie is worth seeing, even if it's not their finest two hours and even if half of any given audience will resent the hell out of it. Adam Sandler's excellent. Even his fans would agree those words don't apply to much of what he does for a living. Now and then he wanders away from terrible comedies to work with some of our most vital filmmakers: Paul Thomas Anderson in "Punch Drunk Love," Noah Baumbach in "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)" and now the Safdies, running a clammy, high-velocity sprint through one man's risky business.
We're in the diamond district of Manhattan. The year is 2012. Ratner (Sandler), a compulsive gambler whose entire existence is a six-way parlay in one way or another, feels his luck is about to change. Inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice, a precious raw black opal embedded in rock is making its way to Howard. He hopes to get $300,000 at auction for uncut stones of the title.
But his debts and obligations make smooth sailing impossible. Howard's brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark, and Howard owes him money. If they have to share the same Passover dinner table, it's an inconvenience among many. Idina Menzel plays Howard's bitter, seething wife, threatening divorce; Julia Fox portrays Howard's co-worker and Howard's partner in bed and in sheer nerve. (Shrew or sex doll: The movie settles for two hoary types of women.)
So why is Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett in the trailers? Garnett's role isn't the usual sports cameo we've come to expect in feature films. In "Uncut Gems" he plays himself, and he's a major part of the narrative as well as an easygoing natural on screen. The idea is that Garnett comes into Howard's stall, looking for some bling. The opal, recently pulled from the confines of the fish, is there, beckoning. Garnett instantly falls for it; this, he thinks, is the rock Destiny has tossed in his path.
The Safdies keep tightening the screws on Howard until the movie offers him, and its pursuit-and-evasion storyline, a fork in the road. One way leads to redemption and survival; the other leads to the big sleep. We sense larger, cosmic retribution at work in "Uncut Gems." The prologue, set in an Ethiopian mine leading to the grisly injury of a miner, puts the inescapable image of blood diamonds in our heads. In an outlandish digital effects passage, the camera plunges directly inside the opal itself, down to the molecular level, and then we see light at the end of a tunnel. It turns out to be Howard's colonoscopy, two years later.
Throughout "Uncut Gems," Sandler works in deft, even delicate counterpoint to the frenzy all around him — the frenzy he himself provokes with his gambling debts and all the rest. There's very little breathing room in the Safdies' approach and, indeed, in any of their films. Their three previous features, "Daddy Longlegs" (2009), the riveting, streetwise "Heaven Knows What" (2014) and "Good Time"(2017), operate on a similar, careening wavelength.
If "Uncut Gems" feels like a step down from the earlier works, it's because the Safdies' talents behind the camera have outrun their screenwriting skills. Few can match their ability (and none their visual style) in staging and energizing complex lines of action in long takes, often in disorienting, shallow close-up. The writing here feels a little stale; the script, in fact, has been around for a full decade, in various drafts, back to when the Safdies first approached Sandler about doing it.
For Sandler, though, "now" worked out better than "then." The extra years have given him the confidence not to compete or try to compete with the maelstrom of technique threatening to suffocate every scene. (The music, always a major force in the Safdies' work, goes a little far this time.) But there's some true, grubby exhilaration to be had in "Uncut Gems" on the surface level of kinetic thrills. And come to think of it: For a lot of us, most days this month feel alarmingly like a Safdie brothers movie.
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use)
Running time: 2:15