Uncut Gems (2019)
At a guess, both how much the individual viewer might enjoy this latest slice of New York grime from sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie, Good Time (2017), and how much they are repulsed by it may have a lot to do with how much of themselves they see — or allow themselves to see — in Jewish diamond merchant, inveterate gambler, and all-round self-destructive scumbag Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, career-best and absolutely robbed by the Academy), who runs a jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District.
In debt up to his ears to his loan shark brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), on the verge of divorcing his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), supporting his mistress and employee, Julia De Fiore (Julia Fox), and oh-so-close to hitting it big when he auctions off a rare uncut black opal that has come into his possession. Moving the gem will make him rich and solve all his troubles.
Of course, Howard’s problem is that he thrives on problems. Success is his stated goal but living on the edge of catastrophe is what really drives him. It’s not about winning; it’s about not losing — seeing how close to the abyss he can stand without toppling in and raising a giant ‘fuck you’ middle finger to anyone who thinks he can’t maintain his lifelong balancing act. So, when Boston Celtics basketball player Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett, and can we have more of him, please? The guy is a born actor) asks to borrow the opal for good luck in that night’s game — which Howard, of course, is betting on — Howard says yes. And when Howard’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) fails to get the gem back in time for its auction valuation Howard, one of life’s great self-absorbed assholes, howls. He rages. He curses. He connives. Inside, he’s elated. Crisis, to this guy, is like heroin. The action is the juice.
So, like I said, it’s a tough sell. How much of you is in Howard? How much of Howard is in you? If the answer is ‘none,’ fair enough, and there’s no sin in rejecting yet another tale of an obnoxious, toxic man building his own gallows.
However, this is one of the best films of that type ever made, perhaps a hair below Raging Bull (1980). It’s not just the sheer energy of the thing, the scuzzy, gaudy, angry, hateful vibe of the film as we follow Howard on his odyssey to reclaim the opal, cutting deals, welshing on debts, moving money and obligations around like a three-card monte dealer, and every so often getting the snot kicked out of him by Arno and his goons, Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik). It’s not just the incredible specificity of the setting — I could tell you maybe three things about either New York’s Diamond District, high stakes gambling, or the NBA at gunpoint, but it all rings resoundingly true to my untrained ear. It’s not just the cast but, holy hell, look at this cast — from Sandler’s utterly electrifying central turn right back to the bleachers, this is an absolutely stacked ensemble. Look at the people the Safdies populate the frame with. Look at those twin brothers who roll up on Howard as he’s getting into Demany’s car. Look at Wayne Diamond, for Christ’s sake.
No, for me at least, Uncut Gems is incredible because it tests Roger Ebert’s empathy axiom to destruction. Well, almost — like Howard, it pushes the notion out to the edge of the abyss, the absolute final point before complete collapse, and thrills to the call of the void.
Do you know this one? Roger Ebert, one of the most renowned film critics of all time, famously averred that ‘… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.’ Which is a great, comforting idea that elevates this particular form of populist entertainment to no small degree. But does it encompass all possible permutations of character and action?
That’s the rub, isn’t it? You need to account for the extreme outliers in your worldview — and what is our man Howard if not an outlier? He’s not even cool enough to generate that hip, nihilistic outsider vibe. He’s beyond your more palatable sociopathic cinematic icons like Gordon Gekko or Tony Montana, who at least make terminal selfishness look fun — he’s a whining, grinding jerk whose voice makes my skin crawl. Asking us to step into this asshole’s shoes is asking for an act of radical empathy. The bar is f*cking high. It’s okay if you can’t — or won’t — clear it. Putting such high-minded notions aside, being around Howard for too long is frankly exhausting; the constant state of anxiety he thrives in is no fit environment for a sane human.
But there’s value to be had in seeing if you can go the distance — if you can maintain or even perceive that thread of human connection between your no doubt good and respectable self and a bottom feeder like Howard. Incredibly, despite his grating collection of tics, tricks, and neuroses — and despite being played by Adam bloody Sandler — he’s not a cartoon. He’s human. He is us, and we are him. Acknowledging that, plugging into Ebert’s empathy machine — which looks a lot like a slot machine in this case — with this mutant on the other end of it requires an act of will, but the payoff is totally worth it.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Uncut Gems is currently streaming on Netflix