“Uncut Gems”: Baubles, Balls, Bets, Beats and Beatings

Uncut Gems!

“Howard Ratner sent away to Africa / For a gem to pay for Hanukkah…!”

Prior to checking out the gritty new drama Uncut Gems, my total Adam Sandler film experiences ranked best to worst like so:

1. The Wedding Singer

End of list.

Now Uncut Gems makes two. I tossed The Meyerowitz Stories into my Netflix queue after the same director’s Marriage Story lanced my heart. Someday that’ll make three.

I admit Sandler was okay on Saturday Night Live (“The Hanukkah Song” was a keeper and Opera Man had his moments), but his post-SNL comedy brand has never been my thing. The Wedding Singer benefited at the time from above-average reviews for a Sandler film and a brief run at a second-run theater that used to be a couple miles down the road from us. It was nice to save a buck whenever we could.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In this sort-of period piece set in faraway 2012, Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a Jewish NYC jeweler with a seemingly steady business who can’t help wanting more, more, more. Selling legitimate necklaces and rings isn’t enough, so he hawks fake watches for other hustlers on consignment. Raking in five-figure sums for each purchase isn’t enough, so he gambles on sports. Using his own money isn’t enough, so he robs Peter to pay Paul to stall Mary to sucker Crosby to appease Stills to deal with Nash to score big from Young. Every big bet is just banking cash for the next big bet, assuming he wins. When he loses, which is often, then it’s double-or-nothing that the next big bet will pay for the last one. And if Howard Ratner the walking Ponzi scheme can’t change his luck, too many nothings in a row could be fatal.

To weasel out of his debts, Our Loser thinks he’s come up with a masterful get-rich-quick scheme that’ll wipe all his slates clean. Through back channels he’s purchased a black opal from African miners for a song, an extremely rare gemstone that he hopes to flip in a legitimate upper-class auction. Once the artifact is delivered into his madly clutching hands, he’s so bedazzled by his new acquisition that he proudly shows it off to the next customer to walk into his store — Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing a version of himself pre-retirement). Garnett is looking for some new casual bling, but once he’s gazed into the opal’s scintillating facets, he’s transfixed and simply must have it. Howard is still looking forward to that auction and insists it’s priced beyond human decency. So Kevin asks if he can just, y’know, borrow it for good luck since he’s got a big game tonight. Just this once. Then he’ll bring it right back and buy some other stuff from him, he totally swears.

Roughly six minutes pass between the time Howard opens the package and the moment he does something stupid with it. Life-or-death hi-jinks ensue as Howard has to deal with the opal situation, his crumbling family, his mistress who works at the jewelry store, and more than a few loan sharks who want what they’re owed or else.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Among Howard’s lenders, the most dangerous is Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio, Under Siege 2). Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Knives Out) is the closest Howard’s store has to an eager salesman bringing in prospects. Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen) is Howard’s Not Remotely Concerned Wife, who’s mired in bitterness and would’ve left him long ago if it weren’t for their three kids. TV’s Judd Hirsch is Howard’s more faithfully Jewish father-in-law.

Gems‘ version of New York City, as recreated by directors Benny and Josh Safdie, does that real-life Big Apple thing I’ve read about, where ordinary folks might bump into real-life celebrities in the most random places. The former star of a 1970s sitcom pops in to play himself as a neighbor who gets two lines. An Oscar-nominated R&B superstar plays a club the same year that he began making headlines in reality. One scene features from a caller with a voice I easily recognized, having watched Okja a few days before.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Do you have a friend who’s genetically incapable of making a single wise decision? Whose every poor choice lets you down and/or gets someone else hurt? Whose life is a total wreck but you figure they must like it that way or else maybe they’d think twice before doing something stupid? Like they used to have an angel and a devil on each shoulder until they had the angel killed and sold its body to science for fast cash? Also, are you fibbing about having this “friend” and it’s actually you?

Howard Ratner is the skeevy avatar of every lowlife you ever dumped or cut out of your life. He has an excuse for every failure because none of them are his fault. He evades every repayment demand because of course he doesn’t have the money now but he will soon. Whenever someone points out one of the fancy accessories he’s wearing, his instant protest is “That isn’t mine!” Backpedaling and renegotiating are reflex responses to him. Personal responsibility is a four-letter word. And in his mind he’s not a lowlife — he’s just gaming the Game. The only rubes who buy his act are his mistress (Julia Fox), one of his sons, and the heavies who keep dealing with him…until now. Gambling is his addiction, his way of life, his primary defense mechanism, and his last hope of self-salvation. But even if Lady Luck grants him that one gigantic favor, will his irate debtors settle for just cash as payback?

Nitpicking? Most of the film takes place inside grungy, crowded storefronts among the seedy sides of NYC where tourists fear to tread and, should they dare, would scarcely live to share their shell-shocked impressions later. The Safdies stage every shopping day with realistic crowd noise — not merely hushed murmurs and lots of walla-walla-walla, but overlapping conversations meshed into a bustling wall of sound, like an entire Robert Altman production crammed into a phone booth. Conversations are composed entirely with actors in closeup, their faces up in the camera as they yammer nonstop — mostly Sandler, as you’d expect. It’s an authentic reenactment of big-city life, so authentic that for any viewers who find real crowds and parties an emotional drain, Uncut Gems is exhausting to watch.

After two hours of backroom suspense and leg-breaker threats and bursts of violent responses and the wall-to-wall social busyness, I was partly relieved yet mostly annoyed that the film’s climax deflated any remaining tension. All the trials and tribulations culminate in…us watching Sandler and a bunch of dudes watching a basketball game on TV. Sports movies are generally fantastic at rallying the viewers into a united cheering section. Then again, sports movies are on the players’ side, not on the bettors’. They employ a You Are There approach that drops us in the middle of the action — courtside, ringside, on the field, what have you. Here, the players are pawns, not protagonists. A few characters are enraged at first, then resign themselves to sitting down and settling in for a couple hours. Viewers viewing viewers viewing a game is the most 21st-century ending possible.

Part of that deflation might also be chalked up to music choices. Composer Daniel Lopatin (known to youngsters under his stage name Oneohtrix Point Never) shows no interest in movie-score clichés and goes above and beyond to imbue the film with off-the-wall electronica and exotica that speak to NYC’s inherent multi-culti vibe, yet don’t necessarily match scene tones in any conventional way. The experimentation is a fascinating listening experience as a separate activity (I’m listening to it on headphones as I type this), but in the theater it was frequently distracting. The worst offender apart from any original tracks was a street scene that suddenly cued up Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”, which…I mean, I love Billy Joel, but I’m from the Midwest. Billy Joel singles are still socially acceptable here. I’d gotten the impression over the years that cool New Yorkers were a lot less enamored of him. Filmmakers do have their favorite musicians (we know Martin Scorsese will never part with his old Rolling Stones records), but…Billy Joel overlaid on edgy drama? I couldn’t help laughing.

The unorthodox choices begin even earlier on. The film weirdly opens in Africa with the excavation of that black opal MacGuffin, an “uncut gem” whose retrieval was performed at the expense of numerous poor miners’ lives. As casualties are counted and carted away, the cameras wind their ways through those deadly African caverns till they find the heart of the earth. That speedy spelunking soon segues into, of all things, a colonoscopy exam. That footage in turn sets up a parallel epilogue as yet another camera plunges into the very caverns of the human heart itself, but in a grotesque fashion. The dual CG sequences imply an overarching theme of “maybe deep down we’re ALL uncut gems, full of glowing, invaluable facets waiting to be unearthed if only someone dares dig below our rocky exteriors!” I noticed the parallels and, instead of pausing for reflection, I couldn’t help laughing again.

Also, between this and Knives Out, that’s two consecutive films that didn’t have nearly enough Lakeith Stanfield in them. For this Atlanta fan, his disappearance from the final half-hour was noticed and lamented.

So what’s to like? I’ve not only avoided Sandler’s wacky-dude shtick up till now, I’d also been opting out of his previous serious turns such as Punch-Drunk Love and…um, there was a second one, right? At some point? Anyway, none of my past qualms entered my head during Sandler’s intense two-hour motormouth jig, the dance marathon of a man who’s in denial of his own desperation, ignorant of how pathetic he is, convinced he can’t possibly lose that many times in a row and yet unaware that the more deeply he digs, the more he ruins his own odds of coming out on top. His voice strains and grates when he shrieks too loudly in terror, a limitation innate to Sandler yet apropos of that kind of schmuck. He’s engrossing to watch even as I placed bets in my own head as to when he’d get his comeuppance. (I lost that bet by several minutes. In second-guessing my movies, as in sports betting, sometimes it’s hard to account for every X-factor.)

Before the fatigue set in, Sandler’s immersive environment was spellbinding to me as a fan of energetic metropolitan settings (albeit in controlled time spans) and of those who live and thrive in them. Eric Bogosian is suitably terrifying as Arno the unstoppable loan shark, but the surprising MVP here is Kevin Garnett, a new name to me since I’m not into sports. Basketball players usually limit their acting to cameos and light comedy, like whenever they do The Simpsons or that time Michael Jordan hosted SNL, but Garnett goes all-in here. At least, I’m pretty sure he’s acting — his skepticism in half of what Sandler says is understandable, but when he gazes into the abyss of that black opal and decides it’s actually a good-luck charm, his sportsmanlike confidence devolves into a sweaty mania sparked by that shiny rock, overwhelming him with a sudden belief that this is the magic I need and it WILL be mine. In those moments, it’s like the opal is a carrier for Howard’s self-delusion and the contagion has infiltrated Garnett’s brain. Winning is no longer just a gratifying outcome; it’s a drug he can’t live without.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Uncut Gems end credits, but anyone who sticks around to calm their nerves after the fraying final moments is treated to yet another bewildering musical choice: an infectiously poppy 21st-century remix of a twenty-year-old track by Italian DJ Gigi D’Agostino called “I’ll Fly with You”, whose electro-percussion and ethereal vocals connect to absolutely nothing on screen. It sounds like the end-credits theme to a Lego Movie sequel.

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