I've seen too many movies, so much so that I'm rarely surprised by anythi ng. And yet, every once in a great while, something comes out of left field that knocks me back on my heels and reminds me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Chalk up the Safdie brothers Uncut Gems as a year-end present for those who love innovative filmmaking and high-wire acts.
Vital, vibrant and daring, this is a production that, based on the directing tandem's previous efforts, I was sure I was going to hate. Yet, along with screenwriter Ronald Bronstein, they have crafted a tale that matches their manic aesthetic, a story of a man tottering on the edge of ruin, who at times seems willing to push himself over.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a New York City jeweler who's always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, making bets on long shots to pay off big, robbing Peter to pay Paul for a debt that's long overdue or making promises regarding merchandise he doesn't have. His wife (Idina Menzel) hates him, his much younger mistress (Julia Fox) is an emotional wildcard, mobsters are after him to collect on a wager he welched on and his business is on the brink of closing. However, he knows that his latest venture will make all things right. Having procured a hunk of rock from a mine in Ethiopia, he thinks that the numerous gems it contains will bring him over a million dollars. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of showing it to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who sees it as a good luck charm. Howard, blinded by the admiration he has for the player, allows him to borrow it. Needless to say, when Garnett has a career-best night on the hardwood, the despondent jeweler has a hard time getting the rock back.
This forces Howard to engage in some wheeling and dealing that take place as a series of rapid-fire exchanges between Howard and whatever bookie, collector or rival he's trying to cajole. And when one piece of his elaborate scam falls apart, his desperation mounts, his anxiety matched by the Safdies' manic camera and Sandler's increasingly frantic performance.
To be sure, the directors' trademark approach – rapid cutting, invasive close-ups, a thundering soundtrack and an ever-shaky image – will not be everyone's cup of tea. It was out of place in their wildly overrated Good Time (2017) as their approach was an attempt to compensate for the film's inert story and Robert Pattinson's labored performance. Here however, their style is in service to the story, transposing Howard's increasing sense of unease to the viewer in a way that's initially off-putting but ultimately invigorating.
As for Sandler, while this may seem like a backhanded compliment, he's never been better. He's fully invested in making Howard's sense of desperation genuine and succeeds from the first frame to the last. The key to his performance is the charm and naiveté he brings to the role. Though he's deplorable in many ways, you still hope that in one way or another, Howard's machinations will leave him sitting on Easy Street. Sandler brings a sense of charisma to this anti-hero that somehow has us in his corner, sucking us in much the same way his big screen counterpart does with his newest mark.
There are those who will find the Safdie's method far too much to take and that's understandable. Yet, there's no question that there's a sense of daring at play here on their part, as well as Sandler's, that pays off handsomely. Gems proves to be a little treasure that resonates far after Howard's schemes reach their end and that's no con.
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