This review comes at the start of a new decade, inviting some level of comparison with the early 2010s on all fronts – politically, culturally, and otherwise. In 2010, the midpoint of Obama’s first term, the possibility of Trump’s 2016 election would have been dismissed by many as a plain impossibility, even an assault on reality. While far less consequential, the idea of Adam Sandler surfacing as a serious Oscar contender would also baffle the senses, given the SNL veteran’s taste for the slapstick and absurd (with a few notable exceptions).
Yet here we are with Josh and Bennie Safdie’s newest release, Uncut Gems – a whirlwind, anxiety-inducing ride into the high-stakes gambling world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jeweler and side-hustling gambler with a penchant for bad clothes and far worse decisions. With the same kinetic, synth-infused energy that characterized the Safdie Brothers’ 2017 film Good Time, Howard works his contacts in a non-stop chain of breathless bids and deals as he pursues the perfect score, all the while keeping disgruntled creditors at bay and making intermittent (generally failed) attempts at conciliation with his family and his mistress (played by Julia Fox).
When Howard manages to secure a rare black opal from a mining commune in Ethiopia, he launches into the first of many poor decisions, lending out the gem to 2012 NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays some variant of himself. Garnett’s role marks one of several cameo appearances throughout the movie, where the Safdies deftly splice fact with fiction, reality with hyperbole. The gem’s third-world origins broaden the narrower themes of transaction and debt in the New York betting market to racial exploitation in global terms, something scarcely acknowledged by the characters themselves, yet making a no-less pronounced comment on who the true winners and losers in Howard’s “game” really are.
Even so, Uncut Gems remains a New York film at its core, propelled by the feeling of sporadic tension and unceasing motion that has attracted so many and deterred others (at least me). The city-spun tale of self-realization and redemption is one thoroughly present in Howard, as he invites equal parts contempt and pathos – doing so much damage to himself and others even while implicating us, the viewers, as uneasy allies. That dynamic is part of what makes the final scene so pitch-perfect and cathartic. In the end, Howard’s inner depths – figuratively and, captured in the colonoscopy scene, literally – invites a not-so-discreet, but still powerful, parallel with the black opal, whose rough exterior belies an inner magic.
Uncut Gems is definitely among my top 5 for the year. Here’s to hoping the awards season will recognize the value there: what is, I think, a diamond in the rough.