By Richard Roeper
Very few movies really get inside the edgy, exhilarating, heart-stopping, self-destructive mindset of the hardcore gambler.
There’s “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Rounders” and the one-two punch of 1974 classics “California Split” and “The Gambler.” Add “Uncut Gems” to the short list.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s kinetic, electric, pulse-quickening, harrowing and brutally intense “Uncut Gems” is one of the most authentic deep dives into the world of gambling addiction ever put on film.
Adam Sandler’s performance as a New York jeweler with a variety of voracious appetites, who has spent most of his adult life trying to beat the bookies, ranks right up there with the work of Steve McQueen, Edward Norton, Matt Damon and James Caan in the aforementioned Gambling Movie Hall of Fame.
It might just be the best dramatic performance by an actor in all of 2019. We’ll see if the Oscars think so too.
“Uncut Gems” is part psychological thriller, part black comedy and part dysfunctional extended family drama – and it works well as each. It has the urgent look and jagged style of “Mean Streets”-era Martin Scorsese. It clearly has the director’s blessing too, given his credit as a producer.
“Uncut Gems” is the story of a man who is in a constant state of anxiety. Lurking around every corner is the very real possibility he’ll be caught having an affair, get beaten up by a bookie’s thugs or mess up a business deal.
“Uncut Gems” is set in the recent past – 2012 to be exact – in New York City. Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a hulking, goateed, leather-jacketed, bling-wearing jeweler who makes no bones about who he is – he’s a hustler through and through.
Whether Howard is behind the counter of his Diamond District store trying to sell a gaudy chain with a hideously bedazzled Furbie, smooth things over with his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), or his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), ditch a couple of menacing tough guys or sell a story to the bookie who says time is running out and Howard better come through with the cash, this guy is always on the run in one form or another.
He can barely keep up with his own lies.
The precise time period is an integral part of the story, allowing retired Boston Celtic great Kevin Garnett to play a heightened version of himself.
Garnett is nothing short of sensational. It’s one of the best pieces of acting by an athlete in recent movie history.
The plot revolves around the eponymous uncut gem, a stone studded with black opals, newly arrived from Ethiopia. Howard thinks it could be worth maybe a million dollars when he puts it up for auction in a few days. But when Garnett and his entourage visit Howard’s store while the Celtics are in town to take on the Knicks, Garnett is instantly mesmerized by the opal and asks if he can borrow it for a few days. He’ll even let Howard hang on to his NBA championship ring as collateral.
Oh, Kev. You don’t know Howard.
Garnett goes on to have a monster game, and he truly believes it’s because the opal has magic powers. He’s going to hang onto the opal just a little while longer.
Howard, who’s just as bonkers as Garnett and is increasingly powerless to stop his life from spiraling out of control, makes a huge bet contingent on the Celtics winning and Garnett scoring a ridiculous amount of points and grabbing a ton of rebounds.
If it hits, Howard will be home free – at least for now. If it doesn’t, he’s dead.
The Safdie brothers are big proponents of in your face filmmaking. One gets the feeling they’d almost be disappointed if a few people didn’t walk out of their movie. In “Uncut Gems,” their camera plunges into the depths of a diamond mine – and a man’s colonoscopy. The dialogue often overlaps, with two or more people talking over one another, like over-caffeinated characters in a Robert Altman film.
Things get ugly in more ways than one. As played with raw, ferocious intensity by Sandler, Howard is not without his charms and charisma, but he never asks us to like him. He doesn’t really even ask that of his wife, his three children or the girlfriend he claims to love. He even understands why his bookie, who also happens to be a member of his extended family, might have to kill him.
This is Howard’s world. If you can’t keep up or you can’t bear to see him going down, then get out of the way. He’s not asking anyone’s permission.