Uncut Gems begins far from Adam Sandler. In Ethiopia, an injured miner’s carried by a group of his fellow workers. We glimpse the miner’s nauseating leg break, though seeing it draws little sympathy from the mine’s non-native foremen, further infuriating the already collecting group of laborers, looking ready to riot. A fracas breaks out—chaos begets more chaos, as is the Safdie brothers’ way—while two workers slip away to head deep into the mine and chip out their own discovery. They seem to know where to find it: a huge gem, which they hold up for the audience. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera moves closer to the gem to inspect, to create a tactile connection with the rock maybe, only to move in so close we plunge beneath its surface—caves within caves—and emerge, amidst a cosmos of particles, from Adam Sandler’s butthole. We’ve always known Sandler’s had it in him; this may be exactly what we had in mind.
It’s 2012, the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and we meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy. He’ll spend the majority of Uncut Gems waiting for the procedure’s findings, but any worries about what the doctor may find up his ass is quickly subsumed by the clusterfuck of Howard’s quotidian. The proprietor of an exclusive shop in New York’s diamond district, Howard does well for himself and his family, though he can’t help but gamble compulsively, owing his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian, malevolently slimy) a substantial amount. Still, Howard has other risks to balance—his payroll’s comprised of Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a finder of both clients and product, and Julia (Julia Fox, an unexpected beacon amidst the storm in her first feature role), a clerk with whom Howard’s carrying on an affair, “keeping” her comfortable in his New York apartment. Except his wife’s (Idina Menzel, pristinely jaded) obviously sick of his shit, and meanwhile he’s got a special delivery coming from Africa: a black opal, the stone we got to know intimately in the film’s first scene, which Howard estimates is worth millions. Then Demany happens to bring Kevin Garnett (as himself, keyed so completely into the Safdie brothers’ tone) into the shop on the same day the opal arrives, inspiring a once-in-a-lifetime bet for Howard—the kind that’ll square him with Aron and then some—as well as a host of new crap to get straight.
It’s all undoubtedly stressful—really relentlessly, achingly stressful—but the Safdies, on their sixth film, seem to thrive in anxiety, capturing the inertia of Howard’s life, and of the innumerable lives colliding with his, in all of its full-bodied beauty. Visceral to the hilt, the sensation of watching Uncut Gems betrays how gracefully it operates in so many contradictory directions. It’s a granular take on a few days with a small but deeply rooted New York Jewish community, but also a tale of one man’s bid for greatness amongst the incomprehensible vastness of the universe. It features a diamond-encrusted Furby, but also The Weeknd plays himself in a scene that confirms he’s everything we hoped he wasn’t. Does he know he comes off as someone whose songs are sadly true? Does he care? Howard is a bad man, but does that matter when he can wrangle some sort of mystical order from the entropy that is modern life and use it to his advantage? When Kevin Garnett first gets his hands on the black opal, the lives that brought both him and the gem to that moment, that place, flash before his eyes. He tells Howard, confesses almost, that he needs the opal, that he feels bound to it, bound through his past, and his ancestors’ pasts. Howard, too, has a pretty good idea where that opal came from, what kind of ethical morass was traversed to bring it to him, but in light of Garnett’s weird lust, Howard decides to make a radical bet and carry on as if the story of that opal, all the lives it’s claimed and all the pain it represents, isn’t bound up in him, like factory farm meat in his colon. Forever.
As in Punch Drunk Love—alluded to by a bright blue suit Howard wears on an especially promising morning—here Adam Sandler is a calm center to the ceaseless churn of reality around him, but still buzzing with constant, dreadful energy just beneath that equally constant smile. Sandler seems to get the bleak hilarity of Howard, how the man weaponizes despair even though he fundamentally believes the fates are on his side. Maybe every character Adam Sandler plays does the same. Just before a game, Howard reveals to Garnett his grand plan for a big payday, explaining that Garnett gets it, right? That guys like them are keyed into something greater, working on a higher wavelength than most—that this is how they win. He may be onto something, or he may be pulling everything out of his ass—regardless, Howard gets the news from his doctor that his colon’s clear. And if you remember the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, Garnett came out of Game 7 triumphant. Sandler’s eyes twinkle with adrenaline. He isn’t funny, but absolutely everything he does is worthy of laughter. It can get overwhelming. His performance is a gift.
In the Safdies’ previous film, Good Time, we’re never sure of Connie’s (Robert Pattinson) fate beyond that of his brother’s (Benny Safdie). In its final scene, we’re given some reprieve from the melee of Connie’s past couple hours by getting a chance to see how his brother will fare from then on, how he may finally get a chance to find some stability, some sense of care, in an otherwise broken system. In Uncut Gems, that reprieve comes with less comfort: Chances are, all of this didn’t matter. Maybe nothing matters. And yet, Uncut Gems still feels so vital. A marvel of so many confounding, disparate elements that somehow conspire to bring us from one side of the earth to the other. One would think the Safdies got lucky were we not wiser to their talent.
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Writers: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Abel Tesfaye
Release Date: December 14, 2019