HomeMoviesNYFF Review: Uncut Gems is a Chaotic, Memorable Ride

NYFF Review: Uncut Gems is a Chaotic, Memorable Ride

Photo Courtesy A24

The Safdie Brothers are all about controlled chaos. There are at least five different things going on in every frame of their latest movie, Uncut Gems. Phones are constantly ringing, three conversations are happening at once, things are breaking, and the camera is quickly moving around the often claustrophobic sets to capture it all. It’s certainly overwhelming, but the remarkable thing about it all is that the Josh and Benny Safdie always seem to know what they’re doing. By the time the credits roll, the audience will see their full hand—it’s just a matter of determining if you want to go on the ride to this last frame.

Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a diamond dealer in New York City who consistently makes the wrong decisions in the chase for a massive payday. Having recently acquired Ethiopian opals that he believes will earn him a million dollars at least, Howard wastes no time in showing off his pricey acquisition to the big name stars who enter his shop—including NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing himself. Garnett loves the opal too and asks to use it as a good luck charm for his next few games, agreeing to swap his team ring with Howard for collateral. But Howard, of course, immediately pawns that ring, hoping that by the time the week ends he’ll be able to auction off the opal and use the money he gets from pawning the ring to place a pricey bet on Garnett’s game. The problem? Howard owes a lot of money to some very scary gangsters and they’re not very patient when it comes to his schemes.

Uncut Gems is exhausting, not just in its execution but in its basic premise. Howard is a pathetic man who’s completely oblivious to the needs of his wife (Idina Menzel) and is almost entirely absent from his kids’ lives. Watching him constantly make bad decisions that will only put him in more financial peril can feel tiring. This movie is not for everyone and it doesn’t appear that the Safdies will ever make a film that’s broadly accessible (which is fine). This film doesn’t have quite the same level of urgency that was so apparent in their last film, Good Time, a brilliant exploration of privilege disguised as a chase picture. Instead, this film proves to be a fable, of sorts, about hubris in a capitalistic society, but it’s also filled with comedic moments and cameos that feel primarily designed to entertain.

The movie works best when it ratchets up the tension. Eric Bogosion is brilliant as the gangster desperately trying to reclaim the money that Howard owes him, finding just the right balance in his screen presence so that he feels like a realistic everyman and a deeply terrifying man capable of great violence. The last thirty minutes of the film are incredibly well-paced and suspenseful, with the stakes suddenly raised to melodramatic extremes only for the tension to suddenly be released in a shocking, unexpected way. The less suspenseful scenes, where we follow Howard’s regular life and interactions with friends and relatives, can drag.

Menzel makes a meal out of her role, using her expressive body language in ways that work wonders. Whether she’s running through a parking lot in high heels or silently staring at her husband while microwaving a midnight snack, she manages to be funny and tell us everything we’d want to know about her character, turning what could have been a problematic trope into a compelling figure. Newcomer Julia Fox also manages to shine as Howard’s much younger mistress. While the film certainly takes its time in revealing what motivates this character, Fox brings a lot of dimension to the role that may not exist on the page. The film probably should have fleshed out these supporting characters more, but the actors manage to do a lot with what they’re given.

But this is mainly Adam Sandler’s show, and much of the conversation surrounding the film will focus on the comedian’s performance and whether or not he’ll garner Oscar attention. While I don’t want to totally rule out a nomination just yet, this film doesn’t quite seem in the Academy’s wheelhouse. They’re becoming younger and fresher, yes, but I don’t think the voting body is ready to embrace something so intentionally abrasive. But don’t let that diminish the strong work that Sandler is doing here. Like his directors, he’s constantly in control of this very bizarre character, making him feel human and justifying his actions wordlessly. If we’re talking about Oscar reel moments, Sandler really only has one: a sudden burst of emotion that he absolutely kills. The rest of his performance is lived in, and deceptively subtle for such a loud film.

This is a strange, troubling movie that moves so quickly you don’t quite notice how disturbing it is. After so much annoying conversation about how Joker riffed on the Taxi Driver/King of Comedy tropes, Uncut Gems proves to be far more effective at exploring the way mental illness and toxic masculinity can tie themselves together to poison a man’s mind. No wonder they managed to court Martin Scorsese to produce! The film moves so fast through its plot points that it’s hard to reflect on it all in the moment, but when you step back and view the full story, complete with a shocking ending, you can see what the Safdies are able to accomplish in this absolutely insane journey. It’s not a perfect ride, but it’s certainly memorable.

Uncut Gems opens in limited release on December 13th.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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