When jewelry store owner Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) finds himself with Kevin Garnett (playing himself) in his showroom in an early scene of Uncut Gems, he’s understandably eager to impress the basketball star. While examining Howard’s latest acquisition, a block of Ethiopian black opal, the Celtics player leans just a little too heavily on the glass counter below him and it shatters. Howard had warned him earlier about putting his weight against the glass, but it didn’t stop Garnett. In some other circumstances, this gesture might have been innocuous and not ended in destruction, the glass could have withstood the pressure. But these aren’t the circumstances of a Safdie Brothers film.
Instead, in the latest film from Josh and Benny Safdie, no matter the opportunity for foresight, applying pressure eventually results in something breaking. This being exemplified doesn’t stop Howard from ignoring the writing on the wall about his own penchant for destructive behavior. Howard makes his money from his store in Manhattan’s diamond district selling jewelry and other merchandise that may or may not have fallen off the back of a truck. In turn, he loses his money gambling and making deals with a range of goons and bookies.
Howard’s most recent endeavors have resulted in him owing a considerable amount of money and having to dodge collectors left and right. Rather than cut back on expenses — which include a suburban Long Island house for his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), and an East Side apartment for his aptly named girlfriend, Jules (Julia Fox) — Howard bets what money he does have on sports. When Garnett takes an interest in Howard’s remarkable opal, believing it to be a talisman for good luck as he enters the NBA playoffs, Howard finds himself on a bewildering and manic odyssey as he is willing to risk it all in order to come out a winner.
The world that Howard inhabits is as chaotic as the man himself. The Safdies brilliantly grapple with a number of intersecting narratives while ensuring that Howard as the connective tissue is always foregrounded. The frenetic cinematography courtesy of Darius Khondji — the master DP’s first but hopefully not last collaboration with the Safdies — catapults us into Howard’s perspective. Khondji’s sublime and kinetic camerawork is enthralling, capturing Howard’s energy and throwing us into the deep end of his environment as we try to keep up with his rapid pace. It’s an assaultive experience that doesn’t allow anyone time to catch their breath. Watching the film feels like being punched in the face in order to feel alive. If stress could be converted to energy, Uncut Gems audiences could power a small city.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this electrifying film is how lived-in it feels. Featuring Garnett and The Weeknd playing versions of themselves, and with a story revolving around real games in the NBA playoffs, the world of Uncut Gems is one we can recognize, even if it’s a heightened version of our own. The details of Howard’s life are presented with a specific and singular sense of realism the Safdies have mastered: no matter how over-the-top the story may be, the messiness of its main character is so human that it grounds the film.
Credit here must go to Sandler’s magnificent performance as the film’s anti-hero. This is arguably the best performance of his career, one that is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination and would make for a deserving win. It’s difficult to imagine there’s another actor working right now who would have been so adept at capturing Howard’s ridiculous qualities while garnering a sense of affection. He’s oafish and loud, both in his squawking voice and gauche fashion sense. But he’s so genuinely committed to his aims and so out of his depth that to hate Howard would feel like kicking a man when he’s down — an especially bad feeling when the man in question doesn’t even realize he’s down.
But no matter how much Howard’s messiness may be endearingly human, the Safdies are firmly unwilling to sanction his entitlement. Uncut Gems opens on an Ethiopian mine that reveals the opal’s origin. It’s an area rife with conflict and bloodshed as even the workers that are dealing with Howard are risking their lives for a fraction of what the opal is worth. As with Good Time, the directors are keenly aware of how their narrative examines themes of privilege. Without being preachy or flattening their story to serve a single interpretation, they do wisely allow other characters time to address Howard’s greed. He might ultimately ignore the critiques, but the film certainly doesn’t.
Running through all of this is the film’s hypnotic score. Composed by Daniel Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, the pulsating synth melodies are bewitching in their own right and imbue the film with an almost otherworldly quality. As grounded as the film is in its raw, anxious world, there’s a feeling of mysticism around the opal that is transcendent. It’s as though it truly can be anything to anyone: a talisman capable of blessing or cursing he who holds it, or simply a rock brought into human possession through violence and greed. A mythic gem or a MacGuffin? No one can really say. The film is labyrinthian and utterly beguiling. Just as Howard is drawn to gambling like a moth to a flame, Uncut Gems is a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows that you can’t help but become obsessed with.
At one point, another character asks Howard if he’s having a good time as he scrambles about frantically. It’s said in an incredulous tone, from someone unable to comprehend how a man can still function amid the chaos he has wrought. Indeed, it’s baffling to the point of almost being impressive that Howard is capable of one-upping himself and finding new ways to indulge in his destructive and competitive impulses. It’s a rhetorical question, but Howard — a man so painfully human, so incapable of recognizing that he’s doing his own version of leaning on the glass, so blinded by the light of his gems that he can’t see how his world is on the verge of shattering — sincerely answers it. Is he having a good time? “Yes.” Of course he is.