TIFF19: Uncut Gems

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Josh and Benny Safdie return with their biggest film to date, Uncut Gems, which doesn’t jettison any of their trademark style even as it showcases a larger budget and a bigger star. If anything, Uncut Gems has more tension and madness than their previous cinematic gem, Good Time, and is possibly even more dizzying to watch. Starring Adam Sandler as a jeweller and gambling addict, the film whirls between the showrooms, penthouses, clubs, and pawnshops of Manhattan’s Diamond District to depict a compulsive man’s inevitable downward spiral. It’s hilarious, riveting, and utterly exhausting.

In the film’s opening moments, we watch as Ethiopian miners steal a rare opal from a massive industrial mine. As the men hold the stone up to the light, the Safdies and cinematographer Darius Khondji push into the stone and through it, exploring its inner contours and bright colours in a psychedelic opening credits that’s like the opening to X-Men or Fight Club on acid. When we finally come out the other end, we’re inserted into the life of Howard Ratner (Sandler), who has purchased the opal in an attempt to sell it at auction and pay off the many loan sharks and bookies he’s indebted to. But things get complicated when NBA star Kevin Garnett shows up in his showroom and Howard can’t help but show it off. The Celtics are in the Eastern semis against Philly and KG needs the mojo of the opal to win the game. Howard agrees to lend it to him, but he needs it back before auction. Predictably, after the Celtics beat the Sixers and KG goes off for a monster night, he doesn’t return the stone, and Howard is left improvising. This absurd plot description is a demonstration of just how crazy this film is.

From there, Howard sets off a chain of events that spiral out of control as he searches for the big score that will free him from his debtors. But as is made clear throughout the film, Howard isn’t looking to get clean of his gambling addiction, but to get off, just as the filmmakers get off on the excess of the style and plot. Unlike Pattinson’s Connie in Good Time, Howard doesn’t want to escape to some quiet existence. Instead, he wants the ecstasy of making it big and the endless run-ins with thugs hired to hustle him only serves as motivation for his endless scheming. It’s in this endless wheeling-and-dealing, anger, and pathetic overconfidence that Adam Sandler’s casting becomes indispensable.

Few actors have capitalized on their impudence and childlike anger than Sandler. Like Paul Thomas Anderson did before them in Punch-Drunk Love, the Safdies don’t cast Sandler against type, but craft a character that lets him play into his specific qualities as an actor, albeit in a film that actually uses his talents instead of indulges them. Thus, we get the usual Sandler outbursts of anger and pathetic pleading for sympathy, but the frantic, funny performance is absolutely in tune with the Safdies’ constant atmosphere of tension and hilarious misadventure. Sandler again proves that he’s a good actor when he’s required to be, although he can’t quite match the intensity and charisma of Robert Pattinson in Good Time.

To be clear, Uncut Gems does share a lot of similarities with Good Time. Both films have a relentless visual and editorial momentum, as well as a hectic sound design that crams as much noise into a scene as possible, drowning out dialogue and conjuring a claustrophobic atmosphere. But where Good Time was as lean and single-minded in purpose as Pattinson’s Connie, Uncut Gems swells its runtime to over two hours and allows narrative lulls where Howard attends Passover dinner with his exasperated wife (Idina Menzel) or enjoys a night with his mistress (Julia Fox). These scenes play to Sandler’s strengths and keeps the film operating in the realm of comedy, even if it’s a pitch-black one.

Thus, Uncut Gems is not simply retracing the same ground as Good Time, even as it shares that film’s desire to give the viewer a heart attack by film’s end. The scale, the pacing, the intimate camerawork of reflecting surfaces and grubby faces, the sheer volume of dialogue and jokes and character motivations overlapping with each other makes for an exhausting experience that drains the viewer. This approach is in service to the story, since it replicates Howard’s own desperation and endless hunger for a new score. But I can’t help but admit feeling relief when the closing credits rolled, if only because it gave me a chance to normalize my heartbeat and escape the suffocating world of Howard and people of his ilk.

It’s important to keep clear, though, that the tension and compulsive energy of the film is not just a side effect of its narrative interests, but the whole raison d’etre. The Safdies delight in the thrill of madness and its perpetual escalation and sustenance. Like their main character, they are addicts of chaos. Thus, Uncut Gems is a thrilling film experience and a perceptive look into a damaged, addictive mindset, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

8 out of 10

Uncut Gems (2019, USA)

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie; written by Josh and Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein; starring Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian.