Let’s cut to the chase.
Ethiopia. The sun is burning down upon a man whose leg is split open.
This is a gristly opening to a comedy.
It’s also the first estimate at the blood price of one the best and latest MacGuffins in film — a coloured gem (black opal, specifically) that’s asking price is going to amount to more than a reasonable share of further injury and bodily harm in the next couple of hours.
Into the tunnel where the men broke his leg, then into a hole in the wall. In the hole: the Gem. Into the Gem now, further and further.
(In Uncut Gems, the camera is often an unstoppable force in this way, moving through immovable objects like cave walls, car boots, and human bone.)
So, into the Gem, and out: through the rectum of a man called Howard Ratner. Yes, it is merely thousands of miles and the length of a colon that separates the Safdie Brothers’ latest incarnation of the manic anti-hero from the film’s titular Gem. And It’s ingenious transitions (scarlet minerals floating in the opal float seamlessly into pinker, squishier gut lining) like this, that express the inexorable strands of fate that bind Howard (Adam Sandler) — a shifty jewel dealer and all-round repellant — to the thing that everybody wants.
What follows is a narrative as deliciously dark, finely brewed and conducive of heart murmurs as a double expresso. This film is another masterclass in that sweaty, sustained tension that the Safdies (Joshua, and Benny, respectively) have stylised like a stamp of ownership over stories about low-stake crimes spiralling into high-stake, fatalistic drama. They did it to viewers delight in Good Time, and do so again here. The plot falls as simply and swiftly as: Howard gets rock, Howard lends rock, Howard loses Rock, Howard gets rock, Howard sells rock, Howard buys rock, Howard lends rock – and so on and so forth, but tosses shell-shocked spectacles of loyalty, love, heartache and bathetic irony in like foam frothed between waves of relentless, nerve-jangling action.
With long-time co-writer Ronald Bronstein, the brother-directors achieve their usual speedball perspective. Howard may be a creator of this pandemonium in the story, but really, his character is a service of the universal Safdie pace. His trading Tourettes causes him to bet, gamble and swap away money he owes quicker than he can truly own it, meaning he simply must keep an eye on the Gem with an auction price that could rebalance his woes to match his wins. In turn, as a result of an entirely different transaction, he is chased by a charismatically glowering thug Arno (Eric Bogosian) and gang, who just want Howard to sit still and do as he is told.
In this tale of increasingly tangled trade-offs, you always get the feeling that rooms have been alive right up until our breathless entrance into a scene. Dialogue ebbs in perpetual motion around central conversations, and there is always someone fiddling with something they shouldn’t be in the background. Darius Khondi’s cinematography casts a grungy, almost phlegmy gleam over the city where this bait-and chase for fortune takes place, and Daniel Lopatin’s score (as playful as his work on Coppola’s Bling Ring) rat-a-tats in a funky, groaning wean until it spikes into a brittle heartbeat whoever someone gets out a gun — like bitter bubblegum for the ear.
This New York, Howard’s New York, (because he does,— before it all goes to hell — saunter from junk-shop to pawn-shop to auction house like a king) is the uncut gem: a world of glamour scabbed over, populated by a people scrabbling for prosperity under a layer of grime and crime.
If the Opal is the MacGuffin, then Adam Sandler’s performance – lauded at Cannes, and his best ever – is a real treasure too. As Howard, every fleeting thought exits his body with the swift, endless consistently of sweat. He breathes curse words, and reacts to blood-money beatings with the inflated smile of a gambler who only takes setbacks as notches on their self-told tale of victory.
- A morally dubious jeweller, he fails to intimidate the unsavoury customers who get bored of his false-promises — too chipper to hate. But as a father who just partly left his wife and family for his assistant (and as the wife in question, Idina Menzel gets the best showdown of the bunch and some fabulous rage) his choices, and his expression, become poignantly pitiful. This may just be the most iconic Sandler we ever see: cartoonishly charmed in a Winnie-the-pooh-on-crack kind of a way, but in a flash, as deeply in turmoil and spiritually wrought as any Oscar-worthy leading role. Sometimes — his drooping, sleepless grin suggests — a man is tired of waiting for the pay-off that turns a stupid mistake into the beauty of a bet.
His is the gravitational pull of chaos, inviting more chaos.
Beautifully funny supporting turns from unhelpful friends in the form of Lakeith Stanfield and Julia Fox, and an especially fantastically odd Kevin Garnett (who thinks he needs the gem to play basketball well) in the end, hurt Howard more than his debt collectors ever could.
Sandler, like a diamond in the rough, emerges as the raw emotion in a pleasantly fizzy soda-stream of story. See it to believe that a film can be told so fully, funnily and intelligently while in such a rush.
A rip-roaring adventure in the trust-less New York underbelly; a true, classy showcase of the Safdies’s auteur touch, and a suitably goofy return to leading man glory for Sandler, Uncut Gems is priceless cinema.
Uncut Gems is in select cinemas from January 10th and on Netflix from January 31st