Uncut Gems: Pride and Passion, by David Bax
While it might be misleading to describe Benny and Josh Safdie’s unceasingly tense and jittery low-level crime thriller Uncut Gems as a comedy, the directors’ singular sense of humor is on display from the grandiose opening sequence. In an Ethiopian opal mine, a worker has suffered a serious injury. Washing away the cascade of blood on his leg reveals a shattered bone thrusting through the skin. But two other miners use the distraction as an opportunity to slip stealthily into the caves to abscond with a massive and rare black opal. The camera winds through the tunnels and then the Safdies immediately cut to Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a successful New York City jeweler, getting a colonoscopy. The transition is, like the medical procedure itself, both dark and cheeky. Other high/low gags appear throughout Uncut Gems, like the running one where Howard’s girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) always ends conversations with “I love you!” to which Howard replies by hanging up or walking away. That one, though, pays off in a way that is both beautiful and pathetic. Or beautifully pathetic, a pretty decent description of Howard himself.
There’s a two-year gap between the Ethiopian mining accident and Howard’s colonoscopy. We soon learn that, in that span of time, Howard has negotiated to buy the black opal. It arrives just in time for him to put it up at auction in the hopes of a million dollar payday, which he desperately needs to pay off an increasingly threatening bookie (Eric Bogosian). It won’t be easy, though, as Howard constantly angles for a slightly wider margin, making risky bets and playing with other people’s money. His nauseous misadventures bring him into contact with a wild roster of celebrities playing themselves, from Kevin Garnett (who is amazing) to The Weeknd to, very briefly, John Amos. Mike Francesa, somehow, is not playing Mike Francesa in his two-scene role.
Uncut Gems is, somewhat unexpectedly, a period piece. The specificity of its May of 2012 setting, though, starts to seem less bizarre as it becomes clear how crucial Howard’s gambling on that NBA season’s Eastern conference semifinals is to the plot. This allows for other fun details, too. The Weeknd is still nearly a year and a half from releasing his first official album; we get snippets of him performing “The Morning” from his first mixtape.
Other particulars in Uncut Gems likely went over my head as I’m a Midwestern Catholic and the Jewishness of Howard and his family are often center stage. Suffice it to say, one of the movie’s high points is a scene at a Seder where Howard and Gooey (Judd Hirsch) talk trash behind the back of the non-Jew in attendance and Howard’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), tries to see if she can fit into her bat mitzvah dress while the children look for the afikoman.
If that sounds like a lot going on at once, keep in mind that it’s one of Uncut Gems‘ calmer sequences. Much of the film’s tension comes from its relentlessness. It sometimes feels impossible to catch a breath between the overlapping, shouted dialogue and the lush, varied score by Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never). It’s just shy of cacophony but the Safdies remain ever in control of both sound and image. Even as scenes feel captured on the fly, there’s a sure and guiding hand (or four of them) at the wheel. The movie’s structure and mechanisms reflect those of Howard’s mind. Barely controlled chaos seems to be the only mode in which he can even pretend to function.
In a sense, then, Howard is a very driven character. But not, however, in the way that we tend to use that word. Generally, drive is paired with ambition. There’s an assumption that the driven individual is driven toward… something. Howard, on the other hand, is nothing but drive and, for 134 adrenalized, unflinching, emotionally and physically thrilling minutes, we get to ride along with him. It’s a shame it ever has to stop.