Uncut Gems (2019)

Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and Adam Sandler star in 'Uncut Gems'



Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel

Directed by Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

The primal energy that drives a Safdie brothers film is unrelenting. The duo responsible for 2017’s hypnotic thriller “Good Time,” once again wield the pulse of New York City and use it to drive their unorthodox method of storytelling. In “Uncut Gems” the brothers take us back seven years to concentrate on the city’s famed Diamond District where we meet Jewish gemologist Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) who is addicted to basketball, gambling, and infidelity. Sandler has wowed us before with dramatic performances (“Punch-Drunk Love” “The Meyerowitz Stories”) but this time he’s so out of his element and so phenomenal that this performance will go down as the capstone to a career that began thirty years ago.

With a prologue set in 2010, the film opens in Ethiopia where miners dealing in rare black opals discover a rock embedded with the stunning uncut gems. It will become the centerpiece of the story written by Josh and Benny Safdie with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, when it becomes the property of New York jeweler Howard Ratner two years later.

It’s 2012 and Howard is in debt $100,000 to brother-in-law Arno (a very good Eric Bogosian), a loan shark whose goons are constantly harassing Howard. This is why you never borrow money from loan sharks or worse, family. In this case Arno’s ties to the family have probably kept Howard from becoming another body found floating in the Hudson River especially since Howard could have paid Arno back several times but used the cash to gamble or scheme. It’s the typical “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario.

Howard’s personal life is also in shambles. Beautiful actress and singer-songwriter Indina Menzel, the voice behind the Oscar and Grammy-winning song “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” plays Sandler’s soon to be ex-wife Dinah who’s fed up with her husband’s philandering lifestyle. The side chick is played by newcomer Julia Fox who delivers an impressive debut as Julie, the sexy, young, and ambitious coworker who enjoys the same pleasures in life as her boss and boyfriend Howard; designer duds, precious stones, and cash.

Fox, a New York City girl and former model, clothing designer, and onetime dominatrix, helped shape the role of Julia after a chance run in with the Safdies who collaborated with Fox while formulating Julia’s character. In the end it was obvious that Fox was the best choice for the role since so much of her is in the character.

The majority of the film takes place at Howard’s KMH Gems & Jewelry shop in Manhattan’s Diamond District. LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) plays Demany, a sketchy friend of Howard’s who deals in counterfeit Rolex watches. He also has famous celebrity friends including Kevin Garnett (playing himself) of the Boston Celtics whose impeccable timing places him at KMH just as Howard receives his precious opal-encrusted rock from Ethiopia which has been smuggled inside of a fish shipped via FedEx. Garnett, or as Howard calls him, “KG,” is fascinated by the stone and he asks Howard if he can hang on to it for a day to bring him luck on the court. Howard agrees after taking KG’s Celtics championship ring as collateral which he pawns to place a bet on the Celtic’s game.

“Uncut Gems” builds to a crescendo as the Safdie brothers pile one obstacle after another on Howard as he struggles to remain one step ahead of financial ruin, alienating his family, and his own demise. The tension is unnerving as the film draws to a conclusion straight out of a William Friedkin thriller. The synthesized score by Oneohtrix Point mastermind Daniel Lopatin is vital to the film’s ambience as it sets the stage to what could be viewed as a tragic opera.

Like most of us, the Safdies grew up watching Adam Sandler comedies. I’ll admit that I love “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” There is a throwback to those films in “Uncut Gems” that involves Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter The Weeknd who during the film’s timeline was on his first U.S. tour. Remember that scene in “Happy Gilmore” where Sandler goes one-on-one with “Price is Right” host Bob Barker? Expect a similar moment with Sandler and The Weeknd.

Brimming with unbridled energy, “Uncut Gems” marks a milestone in Sandler’s career as Josh and Benny Safdie draw from Friedkin, Cassavetes, Scorsese, and experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage for an unrelenting thrill-ride and one of the best films of 2019.

(4 stars)

Opens December 24 in theaters nationwide.

Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society.  He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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