Starring Adam Sandler. Rated 18A
The operating principle of Uncut Gems is summed up in a single image: that of a needy, greedy hustler who has just been punched in the throat, running after his assailants to explain himself—hoarsely, and to no avail.
Said schnorrer is Howard Ratner, a high-end whatever dealer in New York’s lovingly depicted Diamond District. The fact that he’s played by a bearded, bespectacled Adam Sandler can be both reassuring and disconcerting, depending on whether you instinctively associate the SNL alum with Little Nicky and Billy Madison or with Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). In the latest exercise in peripatetic aggravation from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, the effect falls somewhere in between those Sandlerian poles: dramatically compelling for most of its somewhat padded two-and-a-half hours, but annoying as hell, too.
Last time around, in the cult favourite Good Time, the ol’ Safdies handed hustling antihero Robert Pattinson a mentally challenged brother who gave him reasons to get in and out of trouble in the grittier corners of New York City. Here, the jittery Howard is mostly on his own, and the motivating MacGuffin that keeps him racing through the mean streets is a spectacular opal-studded rock worth—well, who knows how much he can get for it? His many creditors sure want to know.
The film begins with a beyond-bravura segment showing the extraction of that rock from a crumbling Ethiopian mine. The camera of Iranian-born cinematographer Darius Khondji—who has worked magic for clients as diverse as Woody Allen, David Fincher, and Jay-Z—burrows deep into that dig and into the opalescent rock itself, revealing Terrence Malick levels of cosmic detail. This gradually transforms itself into the incredible microjourney of Howard’s latest colonoscopy.
Until a final callback that wraps the tale, Uncut Gems never really tops that setup. Instead, we get a kaleidoscopic tour of the guy’s moral intestines, which appear to jolt from one long-shot adrenaline venture to the next. He pawns the championship ring of one hotshot basketball star (Celtics centre Kevin Garnett, playing himself at his peak, which is why this is set roughly 10 years ago) in order to get another one out of hock, and so forth. He’s in deep debt to an in-law (Eric Bogosian) whose hired thugs do a little more throat-punching than he might like. Meanwhile, Howie is trying to walk back an impending divorce from his angry wife (Idina Menzel) while betting on an unaccountably loyal new girlfriend (cast standout Julia Fox).
It’s all a glorious mess, underscored by Daniel Lopatin’s pulsating electronic score, which sometimes seems to float in cheesy quotation marks. Or maybe it’s sincere. Some viewers will be infected by the Sandler character’s relentless, almost religious brand of nonstop game. Others will tire of him talking out of his ass.