Uncut Gems review: the Safdies chase Adam Sandler’s gambler into the discomfort zone

Josh and Benny Safdie’s new movie is another compelling and grisly NYC pulp crime thriller, with a career-best Adam Sandler as a wheeling and dealing jeweller taking a steep bet against fate.

Tom Charity
Updated:

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems

TIFF is probably the first place on earth where you might hear Adam Sandler touted as a contender for the Best Actor Academy Award. It could happen. Uncut Gems finds him in a ‘serious’ dramatic role, at the centre of an intense, jittery thriller from New York indie filmmakers the Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny, who previously scored a minor hit with Robert Pattinson (Good Time) and earned raves for their grungy Heaven Knows What.

Uncut Gems has a similar edgy, propulsive, bebop beat: it’s falling over itself to tell the tale, the kind of morbid barroom anecdote you can imagine the hoods from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas sharing. (Scorsese has an executive producer credit here.)

Sandler is Howard Ratner, first seen from within his rectum as a camera probes his colon (the cut from a microscopic close up of a jewel to the interior of Howard’s rear end is one for the ages, a gag worthy of Kubrick). He has polyps, benign or otherwise; a mistress stashed in his Manhattan apartment; kids and a disillusioned wife at home. A wheeler-dealer, he’s living on the edge and then some, but convinced his latest deal – he’s paid out 100 grand for uncut black opals from Ethiopia on the strength of a YouTube clip – is the big score he’s been chasing his whole life. If only he can string along his many creditors until he can get the stones to auction…

This relatively simple goal is complicated by Howard’s greatest weakness and greatest vice. He is an an attention-seeker and a gambler, and like the driven antiheroes in the two movies of that name (and in the Dostoyevski novel before them) he just can’t resist the urge to get one over on fate. When NBA star Kevin Garnett walks into his showroom to buy a watch, Howard makes the mistake of gifting him a glimpse of the opals. Garnett is so smitten he insists on taking them to tonight’s game as a kind of talisman, and the jeweller figures he can rub that charm into a sizeable payoff… It’s a disastrous misjudgment.

Fans of Abel Ferrari’s Bad Lieutenant will dig how the Safdies dovetail Howard’s careening fortunes with a real-life NBA series from 2012, and the two films share a similar vibe, even if the Lieutenant’s Catholic masochism is very different from Howard’s compulsive need for 50 shades of more: attention, love, respect, oneupmanship, money, call it what you will. This reviewer isn’t qualified to dissect the character’s Jewish identity except to note that it’s clearly something the Safdies care about. Howard is no gangster; he wants to live a good life in the eyes of family and friends. Yet somehow he winds up locked in the trunk of his own SUV, naked, in the carpark at his kids’ school play, just one of several tragicomic humiliations he must endure.

Scorsese, Toback, Reisz, Ferrara… the Safdies don’t look out of place in this company; they are right at home in the discomfort zone. Uncut Gems is a prime slab of concentrated pulp storytelling in 135 New York minutes, gripping and remorseless, and probably the cruellest, funniest joke of Adam Sandler’s career.

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