In the trailer for Uncut Gems, there’s a clip where Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, barricades Arno (Eric Bogosian), a loan shark who happens to be his brother-in-law, and Arno’s henchmen in the glass-enclosed security entrance at Howard’s store. As the trio angrily sits on the floor, one of the henchmen asks Howard if he’s having a good time. Even with his back up against the wall and knowing that things can only get worse, a desperate Howard sadistically smiles and says, “Yes.”
That sense of sheer desperation lingers throughout Uncut Gems, the latest thriller from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. It’s the Spring of 2012 and Howard is a jewelry store dealer in the famous Diamond District of New York City. Howard is a Jewish family man with a severe gambling addiction who loves to risk-it-all at any chance he gets. As Josh Safdie said, Howard is not a loser, but a “winner who doesn’t win.”
There are four things Howard loves: money, gambling, his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), and the opal. The Ethiopian stone, which Howard values at over a million dollars, is set to be Howard’s “Get out of jail free” card with his debts to Arno and his bookie. However, that all changes when Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), Howard’s friend, shows up with Boston Celtics’ star Kevin Garnett. As soon as Garnett sees the gem, he’s hooked, believing it will bring him good luck in the NBA Playoffs. Once Howard agrees to lend Garnett the stone for the game, Howard’s life is turned upside-down and tailspins out of control, culminating with a massive wager on Garnett and the Celtics.
The Safdie Brothers emphatically raise heart rates and amplify suspense brilliantly in their films as evidenced in Good Time and now Uncut Gems. Every cut and song choice further adds fuel to Howard’s desperation, making each decision more important than life or death. It’s a thrilling script from start to finish that rarely has any moments for the audience to catch their breath. Sandler is spectacular (more on this later), and the supporting cast keeps up with the legendary actor in every scene. Garnett is so magnetic and natural in his first movie role that the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has a future on the big screen. Stanfield continues to impress in every role as his star power steadily increases. Fox, also in her first role, is a revelation and her scene with The Weeknd and Sandler showcases her true potential. Even Mike Francesa, the Sports Pope himself, plays Howard’s bookie to perfection.
With all that being said, Uncut Gems is Adam Sandler’s magnum opus. Sandler’s long and successful career has been building towards this performance. Howard Ratner is the perfect character for Sandler because it allows him to showcase his dramatic range while still keeping his comedic charm that audiences have loved since Saturday Night Live. From the accent and glasses to his desperation and risk-it-all attitude, Sandler is in complete control from start to finish. This is the Sandler performance the world has been waiting for and it’s a damn shame if Sandler doesn’t get recognized at the Oscars.
Uncut Gems is a basketball movie, a gambling movie, an addiction movie, and a thriller all wrapped into one. It’s the kind of movie that should be on most year-end lists. The Safdies and Sandler are a match made in heaven. Don’t walk to the theater. Run to it and enjoy the beautiful chaos of Uncut Gems.
What are your thoughts on Uncut Gems? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet me, @danny_giro.