Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox
Runtime: 135 mins
MPAA Rating: R
In 2017, I went and saw a little film called Good Time knowing absolutely nothing aside from Robert Pattinson’s face appearing on the poster. I came out having seen the best movie of 2017. The breakneck craziness of the characters’ circumstances and decision-making is ludicrously and stylishly entertaining; I had no idea what was going to happen next at any point during the movie. Of course, nobody saw it outside of the film festival circuit as they were too distracted by Guillermo Del Toro’s fishman that year. Despite the Safdie brothers remaining relatively unknown auteurs to the mainstream, Uncut Gems had significantly more buzz mostly due to Adam Sandler starring. Despite the myriad of low-effort comedies he seems to efficiently churn out, Adam Sandler has at times shown legitimate acting prowess when directed competently, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). I was highly skeptical of the brothers’ ability to craft another frenetic experience on par with Good Time but was optimistic after seeing a positive response following its Telluride Film Festival premiere.
Sure enough…they did it again. Uncut Gems dials back some of the craziness and stylization, but maintain the same level of intensity. Adam Sandler is perfectly cast as the greasy Jewish jewelry store owner Howard Ratner who gets himself into a convoluted financial dilemma involving a black opal (the “uncut gem”), Boston Celtics’ center Kevin Garnett (played by himself), and the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. A genuinely morally reprehensible human being, Howard cohabitates with his employee and mistress Julia (Julia Fox) while avoiding legal separation from his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and being a passive father to his children; he is a pathological liar and a gambling addict so severely indebted that he risks being physically assaulted whenever stepping outside. It is fascinating and awkwardly comedic to watch as his addictions to scheming and gambling put him into increasingly dire situations; his imprudent decision-making gets him into more and more trouble to the point that you start to feel sorry for him as he sinks into desperation. Sandler’s electric performance is reigned in by the direction, and the script plays to his acting strengths of straight-faced humor, talking fast, and being pathetic. It is very believable that a guy with these qualities would be running a seedy jewelry store in New York. Sandler is never unrealistically obnoxious and does not engage in any goofy slapstick comedy. Rather, the mostly dark comedy in this movie works so well because of how seriously everyone is playing their characters despite the awkward and ridiculous conversations and situations that arise.
I have not seen many movies that naturally replicate the feel of real life to this extent. Outside of the obvious elements such as celebrities Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd playing themselves and the use of actual game footage from the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, every conversation feels natural and realistic. In small rooms with lots of people, multiple conversations are ongoing and characters have to talk loudly and over one another. Line deliveries from conversing characters are often not perfectly cinematically timed and cut into each other. As in real life, characters sometimes do not catch what is being said to them and ask for it to be repeated. An indoor musical performance at a club is excessively loud and characters have to basically shout to hear each other. Outside, the noises of traffic and pedestrians are appropriately loud in the sound mix. Seriously, this movie has the best sound mixing I have heard in 2019. The hustle and bustle of New York City is realistically captured. Extras move and react (or do not react) like real people on the street. The strange side characters you see in this movie do not seem contrived but rather feel as though they could easily be real-life weirdos. The Safdie brothers understand that real life is more often than not messy, weird, and confusing especially within a massive city; they seem to take pride in controlling the chaos.
Every technical aspect of this film is essentially flawless. The cinematography by Darius Khondj is dominated by frantic motion and close ups which contribute to the intensity of the events on screen. Benny Safdie and the brothers’ co-writer Ronald Bronstein also edited the film, and, consequently, the film is perfectly paced. Since the brothers’ creative vision so strongly dominates the script-writing, filming, and post-production, coherency is still maintained between every element of a turbulent film. Additionally, the futuristic and choir-tinged electronic score by Daniel Lopatin (aka “Oneohtrix Point Never”) provides both cohesion and disruption to the presentation as appropriate.
Uncut Gems definitely shares many of the same qualities of Good Time yet is a profoundly distinct experience–a spiritual successor you could say. I am not sure there is much more that the Safdie brothers could have done to optimize the entertainment factor. Parts of this movie feel like they were tailor-made for my personal entertainment, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it from start to finish. I do understand that this movie is not going to be up everyone’s alley, but you should still give it a chance if it looks remotely interesting to you. Uncut Gems is one of the most expertly-crafted movies I have seen in the past few years, and I highly recommend it if you are an adult looking to get off the beaten path of generic Hollywood cinema.
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