A raw gem.
I’ve got PTSD from watching UNCUT GEMS.
Adam Sandler [phew]… acting – there, I said it! SNATCH meets PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, in a film that showcases what a spectacular “Ac-Tor” Sandler could be when working with the right fiery script, the right marauding directors, and putting more of himself into it than just his right nut.
But why the PTSD? From its hand-held camerawork to its dissonant, intrusive soundtrack, to its venal characters all snarling with bared teeth like lions with a precious kill, UNCUT GEMS is specifically designed to throw us off balance, because the man at its center is completely off-balance.
Sandler is jewelry store owner and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner, in a shattering performance that tops all his past dramatic turns (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE 2002, SPANGLISH 2004, REIGN OVER ME 2007, FUNNY PEOPLE 2009). In UNCUT GEMS, Sandler drags us screaming into his hollow prodigal soul, bereft of joy, drained of love, incapable of loyalty; a soul so battered with cynicism and loss that nothing holds any meaning except The Next Big Score. Sandler buries himself in the role, with a unique voice, accent and look (- that goatee!), and a passive-aggressive demeanor masking a man standing on a ledge 20 storeys up. He’s “connected” to everyone in New York’s seedy gambling and jewelry underbelly, and in horrific debt to them all, including a small-time mob boss named Arno, yet he is unable to stop gambling with every snatch of punch-drunk cash that crosses his palm; a pathetic character so self-defeating that we want to beat him about the head and say “What the fuck, man? Grow up!” To be clear, we’ve wanted to do this on many occasions to Adam Sandler but for exactly the opposite reason.
Through a shady African dealer, Howard acquires a raw opal – a rock the size of a soda can, with rough gems poking through its granite. It is simultaneously his salvation and his doom. The African dealer appraised the uncut gem at millions of dollars (!) – which Howard plans to auction.
But instead of immediately running the gem over to the auction house, what’s the first thing this incorrigible knucklehead does? Shows it to a basketball superstar in his store, who cons him into loaning it to him!
Howard received the illicit opal delivery at his jewelry store, hidden in the belly of a fish, just as his hustler Demany (the great LaKeith Stanfield) has cajoled basketball player Kevin Garnett into the store (playing himself). (Here’s the incredible reason this movie is set in 2012: so that when we see Garnett’s televised basketball games during the course of the film, they are real games, with the filmmakers attributing his hot streak to having the gem!) For the sake of keeping this famous customer, Howard plies Garnett with the gem’s mystical backstory of being mined by Ethiopian Jews. He has no intent to sell it, only tempt Garnett into patronizing his store for other merch – but Garnett latches onto the gem spiritually (he sees visions of his life fly by), and insists Howard let him “hold it for the night” as a lucky charm for his basketball game.
Bullied by Demany to loan it (who has no clue of Howard’s dire financial straits), Howard complies! And asks for Garnett’s championship ring as collateral. We want to empathize with Howard, whose luck might be changed with the gem – and it slips out of his grasp!
Then – Howard immediately hocks Garnett’s ring! With a coupla real life pawn store characters whom the filmmakers had to have for their street cred. (The supporting performances are, across the board, the best naturalistic acting we’ve seen since the townsfolk in JAWS.) They front him $21,000 – warning that if he’s not back by Friday, the ring is theirs.
THEN – Howard takes the cash to his bookie and places numerous bets on Garnett’s game that night… by now, we want to beat the shit out of this guy. Does he even deserve our sympathies?
Howard’s marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) is on the rocks; his interaction with his two teen boys is more avuncular than paternal, his relationship with eldest Millennial daughter, non-existent. One of his employees is his mistress (Julia Fox as Julia, with the fakest black ass on a white woman I’ve ever seen).
The strange thing about Howard’s wife is: we hate her… uh, why? She’s totally justified in wanting a divorce from this philandering, gambling, pathological fuckup, and displaying her resentment at every turn. Whether she’s tried to save Howard or their marriage is irrelevant – that’s not the point – the point is, we automatically gravitate toward Howard’s point of view because the person playing him is the much-loved star, and he’s pulling such a bravura performance. Ha! We have to catch ourselves that we are not manipulated into thinking of Dinah as a harridan just because she’s telling Our Boy The Sandman to go put his kids to bed instead of watching the game! When Howard tries to reconcile with Dinah at a family gathering, she squares that jaw, turning it oblong, and tells Howard she hates everything about him. Why do we resent her for that – when she is totally justified? If you know people like Howard, you should forgive her being so unforgiving. Because people like Howard will only take you down in their sinking ship.
Only Julia would feature in Howard’s throughline, the rest of his family only there as a hindrance to his quest for total and utter self-immolation.
The first time we meet Arno’s thugs, they come into Howard’s store and bitchslap him in front of customers. Lead thug is Keith William Richards, who can’t stop looking like Eric Roberts, but is 20 times more menacing than any of Roberts’ hardguy roles. (And we all know why he put the “William” in his name, right? I mean, “Keith Richards”?)
UNCUT GEMS reminds us of SNATCH because there’s a traveling gem at the heart of the conflict, a totem that Howard puts all his monetary faith in, while Garnett regards it as a spiritual totem. Howard is cynical enough to then shift his monetary faith to exploit Garnett’s spirituality.
And we’re drowning in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, because – like that movie – it’s Adam Sandler acting his little Happy Madison heart out; also like that movie, the soundtrack is so clamorous and intrusive – add to this the overlapping dialogue, and it’s like trying to listen to the TV while your neighbors are playing Enya too loud. Bizarre, disorienting sound design by Daniel Lopatin; discordant, overlapping threnodies; mixed within, we hear phones ringing – not that classic telephone ring, but those synthetic tunes that cellphones play in lieu of rings. Is this all in my head? Am *I* the insane one here?
There are fun cameos all over the place, like Tilda Swinton as a phone voice, John Amos as a grumpy neighbor, and Wayne Diamond as a high roller (who looks like Michael Douglas with a spray tan and lion wig).
Directing is lean and mean and usually hard closeup for maximum anxiety. Co-written and co-directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (with Ronald Bronstein sharing co-writing duties), UNCUT GEMS is a ferocious dog in an alley, foaming off the chain to escape the screen.
Of course, Garnett fails to bring the gem back the next day. In desperately trying to recover it, Howard discovers girlfriend Julia in a toilet stall with The Weeknd, and kicks her to the curb, literally, as she has to walk home, with all of us on this side of the screen hating to see her go, but loving to watch her leave. And the piano-wire tension between Demany and Howard erupts in Demany trying to take back his commissioned merch from Howard’s safe – and finding most of it gone! Through Howard’s mismanagement!
With a lifestyle like this, how irrelevant is attending a school play with your family?
Which is where Howard finds himself, distracted and completely not present (while his wife squares her jaw at him). Howard exits mid-play, and is accosted by Arno and Keith Richards – no, not that Keith Richar—you know who I mean… Eric Bogosian is Arno, usually snide or ominous, but throughout this movie holds his face somehow tragic, like a sad old mastiff. We would realize why at the Passover family gathering… he’s brother-in-law to Howard, and enough of a traditionalist, or keeping such a low profile as a gangster, that he fully participates in the ceremonial Hebrew dinner with his own wife and brood present. Judd Hirsch is the family patriarch. It’s not like Arno is a black sheep that is lost to the family; to them, he’s a businessman; only we and Howard know how Arno has lost his soul to crime.
In Arno’s limo, while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood beat on Howard in the back seat, he tries to tell Arno that he did in fact win big on the $21,000 bet. We saw it happen. It’s true. And that he’d pay Arno back right away—only to find that Arno had stopped the bet with his bookie! Even when Howard won, he couldn’t win! They leave him naked in the trunk of his Merc. And we realize only later why he wasn’t killed (because of the family connection).
Garnett brings back the opal. Then Howard’s security door will not open, trapping Garnett and Demany in the airlock. It’s just one thing after another, leaving us out of breath with its audacious raising of stakes in every scene. And that soundtrack. And that goatee.
By the time the gem is appraised at the auction house at a mere $200,000, instead of the anticipated millions, Howard is spiraling into oblivion, as his debtors circle like sharks smelling blood. His grifter’s plan on driving the price up in the auction backfires – now he owes father-in-law Judd Hirsch $190,000 as well! – and Howard ends up at his desk, bloodied, weeping in complete meltdown. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t have any place to go, I don’t know if I can take it…” It is rending because he can’t see that his predicament is of his own making.
Strangely, the person who comes to his emotional rescue is – no, not Mick Jagger – Julia! Only a person ensconced in his unethical criminal world could truly understand, support and empathize with Howard.
Now here’s the brilliance of this script. This broken moment would be the nadir of any hero’s journey. We’ve been conditioned to believe once the weeping is done, once the girlfriend is reconciled, that the hero will turn a corner towards redemption. But this corner turns down a darker alley. Howard sells the gem to Garnett outright – for under $200,000. And we think he’ll pay off Arno with this cash, who is arriving right now with Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts in his outer showroom…
But – as a Jedi Master once said – “This is not going to go the way you think…”
Sandler gave his blood, sweat and kidneys to shake our foundations with this teeth-gnashing character and this rabid film, and though he deservedly swept the Best Actor awards in numerous forums (Independent Spirit Awards, Las Vegas Film Critics, Austin Film Critics, Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, etc.), the Oscar eluded him! What does the Academy want him to do? What more must he give? What sacrifice must he make?
Maybe his right nut.