Opening Wednesday, Dec. 25
Howard Ratner is the sort of hard-luck hustler who craves chaos. Ill at ease with any semblance of normalcy, he’s a tailor-made protagonist for another anxiety-ridden fever dream by writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, and he’s played by Adam Sandler.
Uncut Gems is an exercise in audacious, unpredictable storytelling. It begins with a close-up of a gemstone’s luster that dissolves into Howard’s colonoscopy, to give you an idea. The price is an assault on the senses akin to a rickety roller coaster: It’s a heady ride while it lasts, but you’re kinda glad when it’s over.
Practically dripping with flop sweat and cheap cologne, Howard stomps around New York City’s Diamond District, where he runs a jewelry store with a bottom-line near rock-bottom, as he funnels any gains to bookies and loan sharks. He’s in hock to his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who hires two heavies to exact payback of some sort. Howard’s long-suffering wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is over it, and plans to take the kids and ditch Howard after Passover.
Howard has a plan. He’s managed to import an uncut opal from Ethiopia that he hopes to sell for millions. But when Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (playing himself quite well) wanders into the shop, Howard can’t help but show off the gem. Garnett begs Howard to let him hold the rock as good luck for his game that evening (the film is set in 2012).
With the opal’s auction looming, Howard relents, taking Garnett’s NBA championship ring as collateral. He then pawns it, planning to use the money to bet on Boston’s game, score big, pay back his debts, and buy back the ring.
This twisty set-up is merely the first thirty minutes of the film, before everything that could go wrong does. Any time a flicker of good fortune falls Howard’s way, he inexplicably doubles down and digs a deeper hole. His one stalwart is his employee and mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), but when he catches her canoodling with The Weeknd at a nightclub (yep, it’s that kind of movie), he fires her and kicks her out of their love pad.
Uncut Gems is loud and brash, with extreme close-ups and a discordant score ratcheting up the unease. Randomness adds to the gonzo milieu: Sports-radio personality Mike Francesa cameos as a bookie, while John Amos (of Good Times and Roots fame) plays himself for about five seconds.
All the while, Howard frantically tries to stay one step ahead of ruin. But, like the proverbial dog that catches the car, it’s not clear what he would do if he ever found success. The genius of the Safdie brothers’ script—grounded in greed’s corrosive effects, it’s like the Coens on acid—is that we end up rooting for the otherwise-repellent Howard. Like one of his wagers, this turns out to be a bad bet. For all the kinetic zeal and pretzeled plotting, there’s scant narrative depth; it’s a lot to ingest but not much to digest.
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