The Safdie Brothers, best known for their anxiety-inducing 2017 film Good Time, have stated several times that they have tried to make Uncut Gems (2019) with Adam Sandler for several years. After establishing credibility, they finally were able to team up with Sandler, and the result is the finest work from either of their careers. The Safdies have been rising stars in the indie film realm for some time, skyrocketed by Good Time and now solidified by Uncut Gems. The Safdies are sure to be names to keep an eye on in their future endeavors.
The film follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a Jewish jeweler and salesman in the Diamond District. He sees clients from several corners of the celebrity world, including NBA star Kevin Garnett (played by Garnett himself). Howard has received an extremely rare, uncut, black opal from Africa, and he allows Garnett to borrow it for good luck in that night’s basketball game. Howard trades the opal for Garnett’s Championship ring, which he temporarily pawns off for some quick cash. Howard plans to sell the opal for millions at an auction, but when Garnett is late on his deal of returning the opal, Howard finds himself in trouble. Howard owes a lot of money to some dangerous people, and they are tired of him being late to his payments.
On top of Howard’s financial struggles are his adulterous relationship with one of his coworkers, which leads to his marriage falling apart. He also has an addiction to gambling, which leads him to bet any money he receives, which he could use to pay off some debt, in an attempt to get even more. These problems keep piling up on Howard’s shoulders and shortly after the film begins, they start to wobble as Howard is unable to balance all of his problems, debts, and secrets.
If Good Time was a film that put viewers on the edge of their seats, Uncut Gems makes them fall out of their chairs and onto the floors. This film is an emotional experience, where you feel sympathy, anger, and anxiety all at once. One way the Safdies’ film creates this anxious atmosphere is their chaotic dialogue. There are few moments without dialogue in this film, and when there is dialogue, there is a lot of it. Characters constantly talk at the same time, yelling over each other and creating loud, jarring, and chaotic sequences.
The film is set in 2012 and features events and performances by celebrities from that year. I already mentioned that Kevin Garnett has a large role. Garnett has never acted before, but his performance is actually not that bad, and he is able to deliver lines and emotions without them feeling wooden or abnormal. The 2012 NBA season is an important aspect of the film, as Garnett needs Howard’s opal for good luck to win games, and Howard regularly bets money on Garnett and the Celtics. The film also features popular musical artist The Weeknd as himself.
Sandler’s performance is the star of the show. Howard is an energetic people-person. He is always after potential clients and always trying to get people to do things for him. He is just as loud as everyone else in his world, but we also get to see more depth in a few sequences. At one point in the film we see the weight of all of the constant chaos in Howard’s life force him to his breaking point. He begins sobbing in his office and Sandler really gives it his all. The sequence is emotional and raw, but also not without a few jokes. His girlfriend reveals that she has gotten a tattoo of his name on her body, which only makes Howard more sad as, “Now you can’t even be buried with me.” This is a reference to Howard’s Jewish ethnicity and the traditions of his culture. It plays out hilariously, but we also see his pain. Sandler really brings his A-Game.
The Safdie Brothers’ dizzying tale earned high critical praise, and nominations at several awards shows, such as the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where it won for Best Director and Best Male Lead. I enjoyed the film a lot, but because of the high level of profanity used in the film, it can be difficult to recommend to others unless I know that they can tolerate the amount of profane language used. If that kind of thing does not bother you, and you can tolerate the building intensity, then you will likely find something to love about this film.