Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) owns a jewelry store in New York City’s diamond district. He has a sports betting problem and is into a loan shark for lots of money. The loan shark, Arno (Eric Bogosian), is sending his enforcers to threaten and rough up Howard, warning him to get Arno his money quickly. Arno is also his brother-in-law, married to his sister. Howard is also having an affair with a woman he hired to work at the jewelry store. Julia (Julia Fox) is kept in an apartment Howard has in the city while he, his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and their three kids live in a house in the suburbs. Dinah plans on divorcing Howard after they celebrate Passover as she is aware of his infidelity and he’s more interested in sports than his family. Howard has a kind of celebrity customer recruiter named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Demany moves in circles with athletes and entertainers. Any celebrities he brings in that buy jewelry at Howard’s store, Demany gets a percentage as a commission. Demany brings in Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to the store on the same day Howard receives a raw, uncut Black Opal from Ethiopia. He shows it to Garnett who becomes enchanted with the stone. He feels an emotional connection with the rock and asks if he can keep it for a night. Howard plans on auctioning off the stone in a few days but reluctantly agrees to let the superstar take the rock in exchange for his Celtics championship ring. Because he sees Garnett’s enthusiastic response to the Opal, Howard takes Garnett’s ring to a pawn shop, gets $21,000 for it, and places a complicated bet that, if it hits, will pay off his debts to Arno. The consequences of many of Howard’s decisions begin to crash around him as all his plans face unexpected complications.
“Uncut Gems” is a beautifully made movie about ugly people. The film’s directors, the Safdie Brothers Josh and Benny, mined their father’s life in the diamond district for story ideas and based Sandler’s Howard Ratner on a person their father worked with. If he’s anything like the character in the film, he was a horrible person. Making movies about horrible people, the bad decisions they make, their selfishness and inconsideration of how their choices will harm others is a time-tested Hollywood trope. Usually, there are some good characters to offset the bad, but in “Uncut Gems,” decency is something in short supply. And perhaps the most interesting character in the film is a lump of rock with opals in it.
The part of the film getting the most attention is Adam Sandler’s performance. Sandler slides easily into the sleazy role of Howard Ratner. Ratner is a smooth talker and slick businessman that can sweet-talk his way into any party or business to advance his schemes. Sandler is getting rave notices and Oscar buzz with this performance, but I didn’t think his work was all that impressive. Howard Ratner is close to many of Sandler’s other characters, just toned down in some respects. Sandler does good work, but it isn’t all that special. Should he be praised? Sure, but I don’t know if the performance is something deserving of the highest honor Hollywood gives.
“Uncut Gems” is relentlessly grim. Howard uses everyone in his sphere of influence: His employee/lover, his brother-in-law/loan shark, his father-in-law, his celebrity recruiter, Kevin Garnett, it doesn’t matter who gets close to Howard, he finds a way to take advantage of them. Julia Fox’s Julia appears to care for Howard, but she is using him for his access to celebrities and a free apartment. Even Kevin Garnett and a brief appearance by The Weeknd, appearing as himself, make the celebrities look shallow and self-absorbed. Even Howard’s kids are obnoxious. The closest thing to a decent person in the film is Idina Menzel’s Dinah. She’s finally had enough of Howard’s infidelity and disinterest and plans on getting a divorce. She doesn’t get much screen time, but I believe if she had, we would have seen her shortcomings and weaknesses. While I’m aware characters need flaws to make them more interesting, there should have been at least one person that gives us hope for humanity. As it is, “Uncut Gems” details a world that needs to be cleansed by fire.
Despite all the awfulness in the movie, it moves at a brisk pace, constantly throwing new complications at Howard and his plans to finally pay off Arno. I was constantly wondering what would go wrong next for Howard and how he would try to escape the latest hitch in his scheme. Howard thinks fast on his feet, lies with ease and is likable enough (at least for a while) to placate those he’s scamming. He can get away with his plots for only so long before those he’s dealing with begin to lose patience with his deflections and unkept promises. The Safdie Brothers and co-writer Ronald Bronstein weave a taut story around the lowlifes in and around the diamond district that won’t bore you but may wear down your soul.
“Uncut Gems” is rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. There are punches thrown and a couple of shootings with a fair amount of blood. The sexual content is a scantily clad woman beginning to pleasure herself. Drug use is limited to two characters apparently snorting cocaine in a bathroom, but we never see the actual drug. Foul language is common throughout the film.
“Uncut Gems” gives the audience a glimpse into a world no one should ever visit. While the jewelry is shiny (when it isn’t gaudy) it hides an ugly subculture of grifters, conmen, thugs and desperate dreamers. The saddest of all this group is the dreamers, hoping to leave behind a life of common drudgery, of going to work, of facing mundane problems, in search of a quick score and a ticket to luxury and leisure. For 99.99% of the world, the easy life is a dream never fulfilled. For the characters in “Uncut Gems,” it’s a sportsbook ticket that’s never cashed in and a life of violence and tragedy. I’ll stay in my everyday 9-to-5 world and die an old man, thank you very much.
“Uncut Gems” gets three stars out of five.
There’s only one new film in wide release this week. It’s likely that’s what I’ll see and review.
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