“What are you doing Howard?” “No Howard, No!” “Why Howard? For goodness sake, why?!”
These and more colourful utterances were inwardly screamed by yours truly, as I finally caught up with Uncut Gems over the weekend. Akin to watching the proverbial car crash in slow motion, this crash involves New York jewellery dealer Howard Ratner (an astonishing, career-best turn from Adam Sandler). Every disastrous decision he makes throughout this fretful, stressfully gripping drama had my jaw dropping to near-dislocation levels.
Having smuggled an Ethiopian rock encrusted with uncut opals to the US, Howard attempts to sell said rock at auction, as part of a bigger effort to pay off gambling debts. However, in an attempt to schmooze a famous customer, he foolishly lends it to big league basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Garnett feels a spiritual connection to the rock, becoming convinced it helps him to play better, and promptly gives Howard the run-around as he attempts to regain it. With debt collectors closing in, and Howard unable to keep his financial plates spinning, he makes increasingly desperate and delusional promises, believing he can talk and gamble his way out of his predicament.
As my incredulity grew, so did my admiration for Sandler’s performance. At once narcissistic, sleazy, foul-mouthed, deceitful, and entirely lacking in self-awareness, his character represents a masterclass in how to write a grippingly unpleasant individual. Credit for that belongs to writers/directors Benny and Josh Safdie, as well as their screenwriting collaborator Ronald Bronstein, but it is Sandler who brings their work to life with a vivid energy unlike anything in his back catalogue. He is a revelation.
Despite his negative traits, the film manages to wring an iota of, if not exactly sympathy, then pity for Howard Ratner. There are a few more vulnerable moments, such as a late outburst to his long-suffering mistress Julia (Julia Fox). He rails about how nothing is going right for him, unable to see his predicament is entirely his fault. Nor will he take responsibility for it. As an audience, we feel embarrassed by him; we want to ask him to keep his voice down, just like the receptionist he harasses at the auction gallery. We want to cringe as he makes a risible, pathetic attempt at winning back his soon-to-be-divorced wife Dinah (Indina Menzel) at their family Passover celebrations. She in turn delivers a blisteringly accurate assessment of his character, followed by a rare moment of silence in an otherwise frenetic film.
Packed with Altman-esque overlapping dialogue in claustrophobic, airless, sweaty locations (especially Howard’s shop), the Safdies direct with a restless verité energy that recalls the early work of Martin Scorsese (particularly Mean Streets). I wasn’t surprised when I saw Scorsese credited as executive producer. Equally impressive was Daniel Lopatin’s music score. At first, I found it intrusive, wondering why it kept playing so relentlessly over the opening scenes. Yet as the film unfolds, it becomes something of a metaphor for Howard himself – a discordant presence at odds with everyone around him. A special mention must also be made for the rapid-fire editing (by Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie), which again compliments the subject’s restless, gift-of-the-gab lifestyle.
Uncut Gems is mostly concerned with painful truths about the human condition, but it occasionally delves into areas of social commentary. In one scene, Kevin Garnett asks Howard exactly what he paid the opal rock, challenging him for exploiting the Ethiopians. This brief moment – along with a prologue where the rock is discovered in a mining accident that weirdly recalls the opening of The Exorcist – provides just enough broader context to highlight the suffering inflicted by western exploitation. Howard Ratner is a man with blood on his hands, and perhaps – just perhaps – is cursed because of it.
Needless to say, I highly recommend Uncut Gems. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Strong language, violence, some sexual content.