“Uncut Gems” Movie Review

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     Twenty five years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed film “Pulp Fiction” entertained audiences and impressed critics with its unmatched blend of character and story, backed with fresh and original dialogue that gave several memorable characters distinctive and likable  personalities regardless of what side of the law they were on.  What we discovered was a talent in Tarantino to write conversational pieces between unsavory and often morally corrupt beings while giving them undeniable appeal.  People you wouldn’t likely relate to, and yet you still want to know more about them.  There is always intrigue in the unknown and that includes the criminal underworld, even when in real life we opt to stay as far away as possible from a culture we know is wrong.  To a certain extent, directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie have accomplished the same vibe, sans the appeal, with their film “Uncut Gems”.

     The Safdie brothers certainly possess a unique visual style, which is what brings the requisite energy to the proceedings as the story begins with a brutal set piece that sees a rare stone being found in a remote Ethiopian mining operation.  The valuable blue opal is brought to life as the camera moves inside the colorful rock only to transform into a video screen view of a colonoscopy as both images apparently share important characteristics, but also an interesting symbolism.  Shortly after, we meet Howard (Adam Sandler), a jeweler in New York City whose hour to hour life sees him hustling for the next deal, making the another sports bet, and avoiding the many goons looking to collect on his various debts.  All of this, plus the balancing act between his estranged wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), their children, and his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), whom he supports financially.

     From the opening sequence, the volume remains turned up to its maximum.  Even when the characters begin conversing, I always felt like the background score was a few notches too high.  Just loud enough that the dialogue seemed muffled and ofter times unintelligible.  But maybe this is the Safdie brothers way of creating a constant state of uncomfortable chaos, where the volume of noise and energy within Howard’s world is at a relentless breaking point.  There is never a moment of calm.  He is either moving about the streets on foot, visiting his bookie, pawning various items for quick betting cash, or attending a school play his daughter is a part of while somehow laying low as money collectors seek him out at all hours of the night.  It’s the kind of life most wouldn’t last a mere twenty four hours, much less the fews days the film depicts.

     Howard’s store is nestled within the diamond district in a pad that has his customers go through two sets of buzzing doors in order to ensure he retains complete control of who enters and who leaves.  With all of the people coming and going, as well as several untimely mishaps, the doors feel like characters themselves.  His associate, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) is charged with bringing in cliental (rappers, athletes, etc.) who are in the market for the flashy and high priced merchandise Howard specializes in.  And on this day, Demany has brought in Kevin Garnett of the 2012 Boston Celtics (The story takes place in May, 2012 during the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.) and his entourage who have been told of Howard’s impressive store and seem primed to buy big.  But this is also the day Howard receives the blue opal from Ethiopia and decides to show Garnett.

     As many athletes are superstitious, Garnett, while holding the valuable stone, believes it will propel him to a legendary performance in the Eastern Conference Finals and asks to buy it.  Howard, who already has the stone set for auction, agrees to allow Garnett to have the stone for the next game but ensures he bring it back the next day.  One thing we learn almost immediately is nothing goes right for Howard in nearly anything he does, and all of this, including his dealings with Garnett, take a series of twists and turns where there seems to be no possible way of recouping losses, mending relationships, or even staying alive.

     “Uncut Gems” remains one of the most divisive films I have ever seen.  Can I recommend it to someone?  Probably not.  The experience of watching the film is not just overwhelming, but a complete overload of the senses.  You will sweat.  Your heart will begin to beat faster.  Everything will feel uncertain and in a constant state of disaray.  And all of it adds up to a collection of low life characters where not one among them has any sort of redeeming qualities.  The Safdie brothers have created a frenetic mess of a film because their lead character is an absolute disaster himself.  And Sandler is nothing short of brilliant in his portrayal, as the longtime comic actor has worked his way into the Oscar conversation with a role one could easily argue he was born to play.  And while some may view Howard as a sort of anti hero who eventually becomes easy to root for, a closer examination will determine his methodology only ensures a swift and brutal spiral down to the lowest depths of human existence.  And everyone else in the film, save for Garnett, will likely be joining him.  

     Dinah quips to Howard late in the film “You are the most annoying person I have ever known in my entire life”.  That about sums up “Uncut Gems” and yet I know this vibe was created for effect and it certainly worked.  Now is there value in viewing a film like this?  Perhaps, but the headache the size of Manhattan you’ll have as you walk out of the theater may say otherwise.  GRADE: B