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Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler) - Review

Uncut Gems

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

EVERY once in a while, Adam Sandler delivers a performance in a film that makes you re-evaluate your opinion of him. Uncut Gems follows the likes of Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me and Funny People in doing just that with similarly impressive results.

A crime drama of sorts, co-directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (of Robert Pattinson’s Good Time fame), this embraces several of his acting traits but transforms them into something more potent and powerful, while taking the viewer on a dazzling, if draining, ride through the world of a fast-talking, morally conflicted Manhattan diamond dealer as he attempts to keep ahead of his debts.

Sandler is the dealer in question, Howard Ratner, a train-wreck in waiting who is always one step away from personal disaster. He has ever mounting debts, a wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel) who loathes him, kids who never see enough of him and a girlfriend (and employee), Julia (Julia Fox), who has trouble staying faithful to him.

Things might change, however, if Howard can turn a profit from an illegally imported black opal from Ethiopia at auction. But even with the mythical opal in his possession, Howard’s wayward decision making prompts him to take unnecessary risks that could place the whole endeavour in danger.

Primarily, this is because of his desire to please everyone, most notably NBA megastar Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who ‘borrows’ the opal and becomes obsessed with its theoretical power. In short, he becomes convinced that the opal raises his game, which in turn prompts Howard to place a number of high-stakes bets on him.

Uncut Gems doesn’t easily conform to any particular genre. It is its own kind of beast, which impresses in itself. But it is a ferocious, demanding piece of work that hits the ground running and very seldom lets up.

Its rhythm seems to be dictated by Howard’s own dialogue, with his motor-mouthed inclination often dictating a scene’s pace, whether dealing with several clients at once, shouting at various acquaintances to get things done, or chasing down leads or people who he has deemed to let him down. In that regard, it plays to Sandler’s more ‘angry’ persona – the Happy Gilmore-style volatility that is usually played for laughs.

But it’s also tempered by moments of calm… times when he realises the depth of his predicament and he attempts to claw back what he’s about to lose: whether sanity or family. A mid-film breakdown is especially potent, as is a ‘quiet’ scene between himself and Dinah where he attempts an unlikely reunion.

But then Howard isn’t a particularly appealing individual. And he can seldom be trusted. Dinah tells him as much when she describes him as the ‘most annoying’ man she has ever met. It’s a feeling audiences may well share and which could prove pivotal in their overall enjoyment of the film, especially if they’re seeking a more conventional hero-style figure to guide them through the film.

Uncut Gems

But therein lies another of the film’s positives. This is complex stuff. Howard is his own worst enemy. Yet, somehow, we’re tempted to root for him through every bad decision. And it’s those one or two quiet moments that hint at the humanity, confusion and vulnerability that underpin this often ugly force of nature. There appears to be a soul worth trying to save, which makes the film’s sensational climax all the more memorable.

If Sandler largely drives the film, the Safdies also ensure that the support shines too. In Fox, for example, he has a star-making turn from an equally volatile presence. But Menzel also shines as Howard’s long-suffering wife, oozing contempt on several occasions, while Garnett is a suitably enigmatic presence. The likes of Lakeith Stanfield, as a business ally and middle-man, and Eric Bogosian, as a hostile brother-in-law, also excel.

The direction, while fuel-injected for the most part, also lends the film its own distinct [and very raw] style (Darius Khondji’s camer-work is often head-spinning), while the edgy score also serves to create the sense of unease and discomfort that comes with living Howard’s life and watching it unfold.

Hence, as impressive as Uncut Gems consistently is, it’s not an easy film to ‘enjoy’. Rather, it sucks you in and spits you out for the duration of its intense two-plus hour running time. It’s only when you reach the end, however, that you fully appreciate the nuances amid the overall ferocity and the tragedy underlying it all.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 15mins
UK Release Date: January 10, 2020