A diamond in the screaming bloody rough.
Meet Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a fast-talking NYC jeweler with a frustrating inability to accept what he damn well already has. He gambles with everything for any kind of trade-up: his marriage to wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), the affections of his employee/mistress Julia (Julia Fox), and even the attention of his three children he rarely sees. Forever juggling markers being called in from small-time fences, big-time bookies, and various loan sharks, his biggest opportunity arrives in the form of a fist-sized opal smuggled out of Ethiopia, and nothing seems capable of removing Howard’s blinders while dreaming of his elusive million-dollar payday.
The film about long-shots is a long-shot itself, earning whispers of the name “Adam Sandler” in conjunction with the phrase “Best Actor.” Directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s film about hustlers and criminals fighting over the same scraps has the intimate feel, Indie chops, and Hollywood pedigree to pull the kind of upset industry types tune in to awards shows to see. What may be the biggest surprise is the film getting attention outside of the industry with a Christmas release and moviegoers showing interest. What’s going on here that’s generating so much buzz?
As the Fred Flintstone of the Diamond District, Sandler’s Howard manages to fail upward with just enough charisma to tread water. There’s no question the threat of drowning is ever-present, always one angry thug away from certain destruction he uses street-smarts to escape from. Aware and informed of the system stacked against him, it’s masterful watching him leverage friend, foe, and family relationships, but this is far from a family film. Like watching a worm wriggling on a hook for two hours while hungry fish snap at it, it’s an endurance test foreshadowing the final five minutes of the film; while observant viewers won’t be too surprised by the plot, they might be by the performance.
More a game of Stratego than a chess match, it wouldn’t be fair to call this “Tarantino light,” but it incorporates similar setups without parading them around as “a film.” Sandler manages to appear serious enough to worry about even when looking a bit silly; it isn’t entirely clear if he cries badly or just angles for sympathy, but the latter would be in character. The real surprise after Sandler is Julia Fox, the mistress who seems street savvy and smitten at the same time; is she on the level or one more person working an angle?
The genius herein is all the ways viewers might feel about the ending… and none of them wrong. It isn’t unusual for award-contending films to have ambiguous endings leaving too much to the imagination, but this one curiously ends exactly where it needs to, and that too is a unique thing unto itself.
Uncut Gems is rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content, brief drug use, and enjoying The Weeknd.
Three skull recommendation out of four
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