Every once in a while—and it isn’t very often, I assure you—I ask a very simple favor of anyone who takes the time to read what I have to write on a regular basis. And that one favor is to trust me. You may have written off Adam Sandler ages ago, and the idea of watching him as a shifty, fast-talking, slightly manic, New York City jeweler to the stars may not appeal to you on the surface. But I’m telling you, there is truly nothing quite as weirdly intoxicating or stress-inducing (meant in the best possible way) as watching Sandler as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, as he navigates the pure, uncut chaos that is his personal and professional life in the hopes of coming out on top as a businessman, a gambler, a lover, and even a father.
From two of the most daring filmmakers working today, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie (Good Time, Heaven Knows What), Uncut Gems follows the quirky yet charismatic Howard through the course of only a couple of days in his life. The story is set just a few years in the past, but it is very much rooted in the real world, as Howard moves through his cramped store where he seems to specialize in some fairly tacky pieces (including a jewel-encrusted Furby). He also carries a few high-end watches that make their way into his shop via local wheeler-dealer Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who one day brings in the Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (the film is set just recently enough in the past that Garnett, playing himself, is still an active player; he retired in 2016), who is not only looking for some jewelry but maybe a little inspiration.
Howard has just acquired (through some fairly shady channels) a rare uncut gemstone that Garnett lays eyes on and asks if he can hold onto it for a day, which Howard reluctantly agrees to if Garnett will leave his championship ring as collateral. In case I didn’t mention it, Howard is a degenerate gambler, so he immediately pawns Garnett’s ring for cash that he can gamble on that night’s Celtics game. Not surprisingly Howard owes a lot of bookies and loan sharks money, including one named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who is particularly nasty, but can’t quite take it out on Howard as much as he’d like because he’s also his brother-in-law. (Arno is married to Howard’s wife’s sister; Howard’s wife is Dinah, played by Idina Menzel.)
The other major figure in Howard’s ridiculous life is his mistress and store employee Julia (newcomer and famed New York party girl, fashion designer, and artist Julia Fox), who is a master manipulator but also seems to truly love Howard. This doesn’t keep her from ending up in a club bathroom at one point in the film, snorting coke (and maybe a little bit more) with singer The Weeknd. As the film goes on, Howard is betting, Garnett is winning, Arno is attempting to collect, Julia is seducing, and Demany is attempting to retrieve the uncut piece from Garnett to give back to Howard, but Garnett is hesitant to let it go. Each piece of Howard’s life either sets up or derails all of the other pieces, and watching him move from person to person and location to location results in an almost unbearable tension throughout the film that is also its lifeblood.
To say that Sandler has never been better doesn’t quite explain what he’s accomplished in Uncut Gems. He is an unstoppable source of energy, and as the pressure builds in Howard’s life, he seems to rise to the occasion, takes on every adversary, and even finds ways to stand up to his possibly cheating girlfriend and his hateful (for good reason) wife. We’ve seen Sandler rise to the material in films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, but what he’s achieved here is entirely unique and impossible not to watch.
Uncut Gems in a cinematic pressure cooker about a guy who can’t help but make all the wrong decisions because somewhere in their midst is a play that leads to that elusive big score. The last 20 minutes of the film are extraordinary in terms of editing, pacing and performance, bringing several of the leads into a layered sequence that is both triumphant and tragic. The movie marks a new level for Sandler and the other players in the film, but it also marks new highs for the Safdies, whose whirlwind shooting process and skillful use of both seasoned and first-time actors results in some of the most authentic scenarios in any movie this year. So trust me on this one, and you will undoubtedly be floored by this panic attack on film.