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It is not unusual for Adam Sandler to play annoying characters. Starting with Billy Madison and through Jack and Jill, Sandler specializes in people who get under the skin of everyone around them, only to have the audience pulling for them by the end. Uncut Gems, the dark thriller from the Safdie Brothers, takes that formula and deepens it with an unpleasant, irresponsible Sandler character. He plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer, and he’s the sort of guy who is so irritating that it is a relief when others say that to his face. Somehow the film is watchable despite all that, thanks to a staggering command of tone, dense plotting, and Sandler’s inherent charm.
Howard is a degenerate gambler. His own bookies almost refuse to take the bets he makes because he has no self-preservation or good sense. Howard wants to bet on the 2012 NBA Finals and he has some insider information: Kevin Garnett plays himself, and after visiting Howard’s store, he lets the NBA star borrow a unique, priceless jewel. The stone might give Garnett some unknowable advantage, and Garnett gives Howard his NBA championship ring as collateral.
He immediately pawns the ring, using that money to make his bets, all while he owes thousands to other collectors all over town. He juggles all this while maintaining some veneer of a family life, and making time with his live-in mistress.
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Josh and Benny Safdie enjoy celebrating cinema’s capacity to make us uncomfortable. Their last film, Good Time, a crime thriller where Robert Pattinson plays an incompetent bank robber who undergoes history’s most idiotic crime spree, was hard to watch—Pattinson’s character kept exploiting vulnerable people, whether they were inebriated, mentally ill, underage, or did not speak English. But in Uncut Gems, Howard is not fooling anyone: Every character knows he is full of shit, and the question is just how much of his scheming they will tolerate.
Aside from the dense plot, Uncut Gems has an impeccable grasp on mood and atmosphere. There is a bravura sequence where Garnett and his entourage visit Howard’s showroom, and they get stuck between two security doors. They are effectively locked in a cage, while Howard is busy juggling two phone calls. All this unfolds while Howard’s security buzzer keeps going off. The cumulative effect is so dizzying that it becomes comical.
There are slower sequences, like when Howard hides in his mistress’ apartment to surprise her, but even those have an uneasy energy to them. The Safdies suggest Howard’s existence, while unsustainable, is like some elevated form of living where every moment is an adrenaline rush.
Adam Sandler is in nearly every scene of Uncut Gems, and he brings the same sinister energy we saw in Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. The supporting cast attempts to tolerate him, with varying degrees of success, while only his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) treats him with the contempt he deserves. Uncut Gems is exhausting and exhilarating, the sort of film that takes the idea of escapism and pushes it to a nearly nauseating degree. We enjoy Howard’s exploits because it is thrilling to watch someone get away with it, even if we aren’t exactly rooting for him.
Uncut Gems opens Wednesday in theaters everywhere.
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