UNCUT GEMS is the latest film from the writer/director duo Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Times) about a New York City jeweler whose addiction to gambling comes at a severe price. The film stars Adam Sandler (Billy Madison, Punch-Drunk Love), Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out), Julia Fox (PVT Chat), Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel (Frozen II), Eric Bogosian (Billions), and Judd Hirsch (Independence Day). To best describe the plot, I’ll turn to the official synopsis:
“From acclaimed filmmakers, Josh and Benny Safdie comes an electrifying crime thriller about Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.” (A24)
I’m going to start this review off by saying I originally had no intention of seeing this movie. I am not really an Adam Sandler fan and, unfortunately, hadn’t seen the Safdie brother’s previous films, so UNCUT GEMS didn’t really appeal to me. Admittedly, once some of my favorite critics started heaping praises upon it, I began to get curious, especially when Oscar talk was thrown around for Sandler’s performance. That said, I put aside my feelings and opinions of Sandler and went into UNCUT GEMS with as much of an open mind as possible. Thank God I did because had I not, I would have missed out on one of the best films of the year.
The best way to describe UNCUT GEMS is as if someone inserted Adam Sandler with an IV filled with energy pills and let him go wild. The film is a non-stop anxiety trip with brief moments of reprieve that allow for the more humorous moments to shine. Honestly, what people have been saying about Sandler is true: he gives a career-defining performance that is beyond worthy of an Oscar nomination. The film takes viewers on a journey as we come to find out that not only is Howard a big-talking jeweler situated in the Diamond District of New York City, but he also has a penchant for big-time sports gambling. After coming into possession of a rare opal, Howard allows Kevin Garnett to borrow it for his big game with the understanding that he will return it bright and early the following day as it would be going up for auction. However, as with most things, nothing goes as planned, and as Howard races to get the opal returned to him, a duo of hired thugs begins to follow him in order to claim the large debt he owes to their employer. For the next 2+ hours, viewers are left on the edge of their seat as Howard continues to make one mistake after the next while the tension and anxiety surrounding the pacing and tone are ramped up to a heightened 10.
As I mentioned, Sandler undoubtedly shines in UNCUT GEMS. It’s almost as if this role was tailored-made specifically for him as he easily, and quite frankly, perfectly, slipped into the role of Howard. He’s sleazy and conniving but at the same time you kind of feel sorry for him. It’s a weird emotion to have considering all the fucked up shit he’s done to get himself where he is, but there’s something undeniably charming about him. Another surprise was Kevin Garnett, playing himself, and to my amazement, his performance was quite good. There’s believability in how he approaches the role where it makes it hard to not accept that this mysterious opal may be the key to helping him win more basketball games. I like that the opal becomes a character itself, encompassing a superstition that Garnett subscribes to, kind of like carrying a rabbit’s foot as a keychain. Only this opal is worth more than most homes instead of a $5 keychain that can be purchased at any gift shop. I also want to remark on Julia Fox‘s performance as Julia. My favorite thing about her storyline was how invested I became even though I wasn’t on-board with her character in the beginning. She, like Howard, is also very flawed but there is a sincerity and genuineness that I think most people would overlook. What I enjoyed so much about Julia and Howard was that even though they were incredibly toxic for each other, they were completely unapologetic in their actions. It doesn’t mean I agreed with their choices but I did envy their ability to not give a single flying fuck about what anyone, outside of each other, thought about them.
Aside from the exceptional performances, the story is also superb. Written by Benny and Josh Safdie, along with Ronald Bronstein, they were able to create an original story that trumps much of what has been released in years past. It’s fresh and exciting, something that Hollywood desperately needs. As far as the filmmaking goes, that is a huge proponent as to why the film feels so frenetic and crazy. There’s a hand-held-camera feel which only heightens the more exhilarating moments that are encircled by a feeling of nervous energy. Plus, the film is set and filmed in New York City which is already anxiety-inducing to begin with. Add in Adam Sandler’s Howard screaming into a cellphone (or really anyone within earshot) and that just adds to the overall feeling of nervousness and the desire for a stiff drink (or Xanax). The Safdie Brothers have created a film experience that throws you into the middle of chaos and keeps you pinned there well after the 2-hour run-time has finished.
In all, UNCUT GEMS is an electric shock to the movie-goers system that is much needed. It includes award-winning performances and a tight, well-thought-out script that’ll keep you glued to the screen as you watch the unfolding drama take place. Watching what Harold goes through is like watching a car crash – you know you should look away and you are pretty sure it’s not going to end well, but you can’t help but be rooted to your spot with voyeuristic glee. Not only has this film firmly planted itself as one of my top 10 favorite of the year, but it’s also made me want to check out the Safdie Brother’s earlier work, which is a win-win for everyone. If you are looking for a way to mentally check-out of family drama and responsibilities this holiday season, then feign sickness and go see UNCUT GEMS when it’s released in theaters December 13, 2019. Also, be on the lookout for a special diamond-encrusted Furby that you will for sure want as your own.