An uncut gem is a stone that is rough on the outside and beautiful on the inside. That description also applies to the movie Uncut Gems, a masterpiece with a tough story and tender heart from indie filmmakers the Safdie brothers. The brothers have pulled this mixture off before in another New York thriller — Good Time — but this has a different vibe. It’s the cinematic equivalent to mixing cocaine with acid, a burst of energy that unfolds like a dream.
Josh and Benny Safdie take us on a thrill ride here. Young and full of ideas, these 30-somethings enjoy pushing the boundaries, and their camera goes places no other director would dare explore. After a prologue in an Ethiopian mine, the camera is dug out of Howard’s (Adam Sandler’s) intestines during a colonoscopy. It’s a fitting introduction to a man at rock bottom.
He’s a Diamond District jeweler slumming it in a sketchy New York burrow, with debt that’s mounting and a family life that’s fading like the clast from a well-weathered rock. “You’re the most annoying person I have ever met,” his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) screams at him. Her criticism is fair. Since Howard left Dinah for Julia (Julia Fox), his shop’s clerk, he hasn’t spent time with his family. That’s probably best for the family, though.
This is a man who makes terrible decision after terrible decision. A gambler, hustler and cheater, the character is a touchstone addiction, as well as a metamorphic metaphor for the horrific things that happen when addiction takes over someone’s life. So it’s hard to imagine what Howard would have been without the Sandman playing him. An actor who finds pathos in childish characters (The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore), Sandler makes it easy for audiences to root for even this despicable character.
When NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) comes to his shop to purchase an Ethiopian opal, Howard shapeshifts into an endearing salesman. Garnett, who was basketball’s fiercest competitor when this takes place in 2012, is determined to buy the magic gem for good luck. “They say you can see the whole world in opals,” Howard yells to Garnett over the noise in his shop. People constantly shout in the background, and these conversations blend with the synth-fueled soundtrack, making the sound design hectic as it immerses audiences in the anarchy of Howard’s everyday life.
In recent interviews, the Safdie brothers have cited Rodney Dangerfield as an inspiration for the noisy character. They are likely referring to the standup comedian’s “I get no respect” bit, which could be the bling salesman’s life motto. Julia cheats on him with The Weekend, who gets a cameo in an intoxicating party sequence. Thugs aren’t afraid to double team him at his kid’s play, where they strip him naked and kick him senseless. And Garnett steals the opal at the shop for his playoff series against the Detroit Pistons, which becomes a problem when Howard needs to sell it at an auction.
What keeps the protagonist going despite these circumstances is his fixation with striking it rich. No matter how much money he loses, he keeps betting for the thrill of it. The more he ruins his life, the more the Safdies crank up the adrenaline by shooting in anamorphic format. There’s an intimacy to shooting closeups in widescreen; those shots from far away, peering in on Howard as he rushes through his daily routine, make the audience feel uneasy, as if we are stalking him from across the street.
The authenticity here comes from the cast. Sandler continues to prove his critics wrong by nailing serious roles. With Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories and Gems, the actor has delivered nuanced, Oscar-worthy performances that recall the churlish characters that made him a comedic star in the ‘90s. His Howard is just as childish as Happy Gilmore or Bobby Boucher Jr. but still hints at more underneath.
The actresses by his side shine as well. Menzel digs deep into the role of Howard’s neglected wife, her frustration becoming more apparent with every reaction shot. Fox sparkles, and not just because her Julia is wearing Howard’s diamonds. Her genial performance is a nice contrast to the hard-nosed Garnett, who she often shares scenes with, and who assists in tying the story together.
But it’s the Safdie’s script that deserves the credit for giving a convoluted story a coherent ending. Everything is connected. Like Robert Bresson’s similarly themed L’Argent, the endless cycle of greed can be traced back to a single piece of currency. In Bresson’s final film, it was a forged 500 franc that eventually led to a handful of murders. Here, it’s the opal that spirals everything out of control. It’s a gem that symbolizes obsession, in a groundbreaking work of art worth obsessing over.