Brothers and co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie are two of the most exciting names working in modern independent cinema, so their film “Uncut Gems” debuted alongside a shadow of grandiose expectations. The bottom line is that the film is good but far from great, and I’m comfortable going out on a limb and guessing those crowing the loudest about how fresh and original this movie is haven’t seen their far superior 2017 film, “Good Time.”
New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard finds himself struggling to keep the balance between the growing list of adversaries, his business, his scams, and his home life. There isn’t much to the story other than a lot of cursing and ongoing scams, but there’s a decent sense of suspense that carries through the majority of the film.
The most shocking thing about “Uncut Gems” is that it lacks depth, especially when compared to “Good Time.” It’s not unfair to compare the two films, as each portray a gritty side of the city with antiheros who are close to completely hitting the skids. An effective crime thriller should have a lead character you can at least root for if not relate to, and Howard isn’t it. Sandler’s character is an irritating scumbag and while I guess that’s what he was going for in his performance, it’s shrill and unpleasant to spend time around this loser. I didn’t really care to see the end of Howard’s story because by the time it rolled around, I was completely worn down by his repeated poor decisions.
Here’s what happens in the film: Howard lies, gets cash, gambles it away, extends himself, gets a beating / stern warning / workplace visit from goons, then lies, gets cash, gambles it away, extends himself, and gets another beat down / visit from more goons. It’s an exhausting repetition of watching a sleazy scumbag spiraling out of control by digging himself deeper into a hole. His cycle of poor decisions is coupled with an indestructible optimism of a life-changing big score. Why should I care about somebody like that?
Sandler is good in the lead role, but much of the praise seems to be coming from the fact that, after a career in comedy films, his performance is unexpected. He’s a talented man, but he’s been even better in other, smaller films (like Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories”). Howard is a loud, crude, unpleasant man to spend time with, but Sandler inhabits the role as a shady jewelry dealer and degenerate gambler in a way that lends the slightest glimmer of humanity to an otherwise detestable character.
The film plays like a hardcore, taxing Scorsese ripoff. It’s not very exciting, and the tension that does exist feels forced. The direction is more conventional than the material suggests, but major applause to the Safdie brothers for conveying their clear vision and having the courage to stick with it. They’ve started to corner the cinematic market on adapting the gritty side of New York for a modern era. I don’t feel the Safdies are as overrated as some other critics do, but I do think this film is bloated in all the wrong ways.