From the first time you see the uncut gem in Uncut Gems, you’re mesmerized and transported. Transported to a world of high stakes gambling and utter chaos. Much like the main characters of the film, the moment we lay our eyes on this uncut gem we are pushed to view the obsessions and addictions it represents. Directed by the Safdies, Uncut Gems tells the story of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) a jeweler in the New York Diamond District with a crippling gambling addiction. The film takes place over the course of a couple of days as Howard tries to balance his chaotic life.
Underneath this simplistic story is engaging characters and fantastic direction from the Safdies. Moreover, Uncut Gems is refreshing and a (surprisingly) visual spectacle. The transition from the inside of an opal to the inside of Howard as he undergoes a colonoscopy at the beginning of the film is particularly impressive. This sequence is a clever metaphor. It is also one prevalent throughout the film. Howard’s need for the opal and the potential he sees in it is deep inside of him.
Speaking of story, Uncut Gems has a phenomenal script written by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein. The dialogue in the film feels genuine. Watching so many characters talk at once and seeing the conflict unfold on screen is stress inducing. The story moves at a breakneck pace as we watch Howard make one bad decision after another. Adam Sandler gives a career high performance in this film. The Safdies never move focus away from him, making his performance all the more impressive. Sandler captures his usual wit and humor. Only this time around, there is a certain sadness and desperation behind it. Not since Punch Drunk Love has Sandler portrayed such a complex character.
The characters that surround Howard are just as intriguing as Howard himself. Julia Fox plays Julia, Howard’s girlfriend. The newcomer actress provides a stellar performance in the film. Her relationship with Howard is as toxic as you’d expect, as he still has a family on the side. In contrast to Julia we have Idina Menzel as Gina, Howard’s wife and mother of this children. Additionally, these multiple facets of Howard’s life come into play in interesting ways. The enormous debt Howard owes and the harassment he gets comes from a very personal part of his life. It’s revealed in a satisfying way, demonstrating how Howie’s life has unraveled.
Lakeith Steinfeld plays an assistant to Howard who does great with the little screentime he has. Mostly a foil to Howard throughout the film, some of their interactions are also the funniest. The entire cast of Uncut Gems brings their A-Game. Keith Williams Richards as Phil works as muscle for Arno (Eric Bogosian), the man Howard owes money to. Watching Phil threaten and beat and torment Howie and Howie still continuing the path he is on is anxiety provoking to say the least.
Kevin Garnett as himself is a highlight as well. Watching Garnett become obsessed with the Opal in Howard’s possession is both hilarious and concerning. Moreover, seeing his interactions with Sandler are some of the best parts of the film. A monologue that Sandler as Howard delivers to Garnett is one of the best moments in film in 2019. Howard has delusions of grandeur and it is unsettling and captivating at the same time. Howard digs himself into a deeper hole. Even when given the opportunity to do the right thing. Uncut Gems encapsulates the feeling of being too entrenched in something. An addiction so deep in your core, much like the title itself.
The world of jewelry and high stakes gambling is captured perfectly in Uncut Gems. Particularly, the grittiness of New York. Not since the films of Martin Scorsese has New York looked this grimy and real. It’s a lived in world that Howard is trying to survive. In his insane bets, schemes, and scams, Uncut Gems has you on the edge of your seat. The self delusion on stage in this film is unbelievable. However, you’re there for every minute of it. Cheering for Howie to come out on top. Hoping the one big score will be enough. Unfortunately, deep down we know it won’t be.
Throughout the film, most of the chaos takes place in Howard’s shop. With two doors that need to be buzzed in for you to go through. The Safdies construct the chaos perfectly; overlapping voices and crowded interiors make the viewer anxious. It’s a perfect set with intricate production design. It oozes style and thematic purpose. Speaking of style, the score by Daniel Lopatin is another near perfect part of the film.
Taking a Vangelis-like approach to Uncut Gems, Lopatin fills the score with synths and comforting beats. Its complex rhythms and intricate beats are almost a musical representation of the uncut gem featured in the film itself. Its curves, ridges, and shining opals just as complex as the musical score. The pieces that play in each scene help elevate the film to a whole other level. Darius Khondji brings everything together with his cinematography. His transitions and shot compositions are some of the best I have seen all year.
The film pushes to a completely chaotic third act that is one of the most stressful I have ever experienced. It’s completely unlike any other film. Howard pushes everything to the absolute limit in the final act of the film. The opal, Kevin Garnett, his debt to Arno and his muscle, everything starts coming together for an absolutely thrilling finale. Everything comes crashing down all at once. Uncut Gems has such a sudden and absolutely powerful ending. The final moments of Uncut Gems is some of my favorite moments of 2019 caught on film.
At one point in the film (Howards lowest) he whimpers “everything I do is not going right”. We try to sympathize with him in this scene, and many other moments. However, much as the uncut gem in Uncut Gems shows, the allure of the beauty, riches, and coming out on top captures nearly every character in this film. The closing shot of the film establishes what is really going on in the character of Howard Ratner. Deep inside him, is an uncut gem itself. Showing and representing the need Howard had in the very core of his being. Because of this, Uncut Gems is the best film of the year. A testament to expert storytelling using all aspects of the medium to their full potential. This is how cinema wins. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 10/10
Uncut Gems is now playing in Theaters. The Film stars Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfeild and Kevin Garnett.