Quarantine Film Fest — “Uncut Gems” (2019), dir. Josh and Benny Safdie
Although it was unintentional, I have to believe some cosmic force drove me to watch “Uncut Gems” only a few hours after seeing Adam Sandler’s 2016 Netflix comedy “The Do-Over,” co-starring David Spade, on the suggestion of my wife that we should watch something fun to distract us from the daily apocalypse. “The Do-Over” was released in the midst of a diabolical rash of Sandler-centric comedies over the course of a few years, including “The Ridiculous 6,” “Sandy Wexler,” and more recently “The Week Of,” and I’ve always enjoyed Sandler’s earlier and what are now probably considered cult comedies, “Billy Madison,” and “Happy Gilmore,” but my expertise and interest in whatever Sandler is doing typically has pretty much stopped there. I always enjoyed his uniquely stupid brand of humor on “Saturday Night Live,” and his early comedies carried the torch he lit from those days on the NBC sketch comedy show. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t pace the floor waiting for Adam Sandler comedies. And while “The Do-Over” seemed to get pretty crappy reviews, I have to say, if you were expecting something more, then you just set yourself up for 90 minutes of needless hatred because it pretty much follows the formula of those bygone Sandler classics, and in the spirit of those films, I gotta say, I didn’t mind it.
I can already hear the David Thomsons and Pauline Kaels: “He was great in ‘Punch-Drunk Love’” (and he was), and those who wear the “I’ve-Never-Sullied-My-Good-Taste-With-The-Likes-Of-Watching-An-Adam Sandler-Movie.” Get over yourselves. The guy may make some check-your-brain-at-the-door flicks, but what you won’t find is a bunch of unaware bullshit. His films know what they are, and you got to respect that.
Anyway, we’re here to talk about “Uncut Gems” which stars a transcendent Adam Sandler who disappears — or does he really (more on that later) — into the role of New York City Diamond District jeweler Howard Ratner. Howard is in over his head in just about everything he does because he never, ever stops trying to be someone he absolutely isn’t. The film begins with his wooing NBA Celtics player, and jewelry enthusiast Kevin Garnett with an alleged “mystical” chunk of black opal he purchased from “black Jews” in Ethiopia. The main plot of the film centers on where this opal is at any given moment because Howard needs it for an upcoming auction, because guess what, he owes a guy some money. In the meantime, his marriage is falling apart, and he’s got a crazy on-again / off-again girlfriend who works for him and who also sort of has a thing for then up and coming and still accessible hip-hop artist The Weeknd, which understandably would cause a 48-year-old man some need for validation. Oh, did I mention the film takes place in 2012? Well, it does.
In the spirit of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” and perhaps an omen of things to come — and you’ll see why — the film starts with miners in Ethiopia pulling out a badly injured man from the opal mines where Howard’s gem originates. From there, the film moves with such a kinetic, claustrophobic energy, bobbing and weaving with chaos heightened by extreme close-ups, very real — and often simply ugly — faces, and over-lapping dialogue that will make you short of breath with panic in nearly every scene. And if a gem had its own score playing inside of it, it would be composer Daniel Lopatin’s dripping electronic soundtrack that drones us through this seemingly cosmic fable of a bunch of people trying to be something they’re not. And while we’re hanging out inside a gem, I’d be remiss if I didn’t notice the slightly frosty and barely overexposed look of the film by cinematographer Darius Khondji that dares to offer the poetically mystical notion of the story occurring inside the opal we see cut at the beginning of the film.
As I said, Howard’s big problem isn’t that he owes money and takes “hold my beer” risks any chance he gets, it’s that he’s constantly trying to be the coolest guy in the room and at an embarrassing rate — almost to the point of horror. There’s a critical scene when Kevin Garnett and his entourage visit Howard’s store to return the opal Howard loaned him, and “KG” and his crew are stuck in the vestibule outside because the door fails to open when the gang is buzzed in. Kevin is in a hurry, Howard can’t get the door open, Howard needs the opal, everybody is talking over each other, I’m getting sweaty, and when he finally gets the door open, Howard doesn’t have the championship ring Garnett loaned him as collateral. I could have barfed right then and there from embarrassment. Also, the apartment Howard has set up for his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) looks like it belongs to a villain in a mid-90s Michael Mann movie. And dating himself further as to what’s “cool,” looking like he walked off the set of “Miami Vice,” Howard wears an awkwardly too large, orange dress-shirt, half unbuttoned, gold chains, and sunglasses to a party with a bunch of thirty-somethings — Howard is 48. This is a man who just came from his teenage daughter’s play in the suburbs! At one point, girlfriend Julia shows him a photo of The Weeknd, and he says, “This guy looks stupid.” In spite of his obnoxious clothing and incessant bullshit, Howard is the very picture of insecurity. You might say he’s searching for identity, and while that may be partially true, Howard’s tragedy is that he’s completely aware that he’s always playing out of his league. He’s simply too self-aware to be the con-man he’s trying to be.
While Sandler’s performance is to behold, I’d argue that he essentially plays the same character in some of the comedies he’s known for, but the difference here is the venue he’s playing in. It’s as if you made a movie around Happy Gilmore having an honest-to-God mid-life crisis, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most jarring things I’ve seen.
By the end, Howard finds the success he’s been searching for, but not before it’s abruptly cut short by one of the scariest goons on film played by perhaps former REAL goon Keith Williams Richards in his first ever film role. Richards was apparently discovered on the streets of New York City while walking to a train stop. Anyway, if no one else in this movie is sure of their place in the world, Richards’ character most certainly never had a doubt, and that’s why Howard, in a way, obtains yet another kind of “uncut gem.”
Like coming off a drunk at party you’re ready to go home from and you can’t find your keys, the anxiety pulses from start to finish at the vague and poetic suggestion of a higher or cosmic or mystical power indirectly instructing us to know our place in the world. “Uncut Gems is frighteningly relatable because at some point we’ve all been that guy (or girl) who wants to eat at the cool kids table, and the lesson here is simply seeing how that game plays all the way out.
(Blu-ray release from Lionsgate)