DirectorJosh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Release Date(s)2019 (March 10, 2020)
Studio(s)Elara Pictures/IAC Films/Sikelia Productions (A24/Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: C+
Uncut Gems is the kind of film that makes you squirm yet is so compelling that you can’t look away. It stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a successful jeweler evidently in a midlife crisis who makes one bad decision after another. Having played numerous variations on the man-child in previous films, the actor finally shows his acting chops in this challenging role.
Howard’s shop is in Manhattan’s diamond district. His street smarts and charismatic personality have made his store a gathering place for the criminal, the ambitious, and the debt collectors. Howard knows his profession but is at heart a hustler and a gambler. His bets, however, haven’t been working out lately and he owes thousands of dollars. He sees his way out of debt in a massive uncut precious opal that he counts on selling at an auction for a huge profit, but his plan runs into several obstacles, mostly the result of wheeling and dealing with the wrong people.
With a strained marriage to wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and employee/mistress Julia (Julia Fox) on the side, Howard races through his days one step ahead of disaster, juggling deals, sweet talking or foul-mouthing or ducking debtors, convincing others of a big payday, and trying to smooth over his crumbling private life.
With an excellent script by Ronald Bronstein and Benny and Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems is a relentless look at a man moving ever further toward the edge of disaster, drawn in by hustling and addicted to gambling on professional basketball. One of Howard’s associates, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), brings NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett (as himself) into the store, and Howard shows him the opal. Garnett, believing the opal will bring him luck on the court, asks to borrow it and, though this may not be the most prudent of decisions, Howard agrees. This sets off a series of machinations involving a valuable ring, raising quick cash, satisfying his contract with the auction house, fast-talking intimidating thugs, and juggling chancy schemes that he hopes will turn out well.
Sandler has finally found a project in which he can be more than just a goofy version of himself. Howard is a real, deeply-flawed person, and Sandler has thoroughly inhabited the character. Tough talking, cajoling, and desperate, Howard is an encyclopedia of ready excuses, lies, and promises. He has a self-confidence and charm that works for him in some instances, but not all. He and Dinah are on the road to divorce and his kids hardly know him, but he still wants another chance to do what’s right.
Directors Benny and Josh Safdie (Good Time) have given Uncut Gems a fast pace by using quick cuts and constant movement through locations in and around Manhattan. The momentum matches Howard’s frantic efforts to make the big score. We know the pitfalls to his plans are many and that he’s really gambling on his ability to pull them off. For Howard, stress is an everyday fact of life. The Safdies capture the despair of a hustler who keeps weaseling his way out of one risky hustle after another. The harder things get for Howard, the more cunning he becomes.
Uncut Gems, rated R, is a terrific exercise in unflagging suspense and tension and great storytelling. Every character, no matter how minor, resonates with personality. Dialogue, often overlapping, is spontaneous, energetic, and economical. Sandler is simply extraordinary in a screen performance that ranks among the best of 2019.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray from A24 and Lionsgate is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The film has an overall bluish cast. The prologue, set in Ethiopia, has a sequence in which flashlights shine on the inside of a mine and the black opal is discovered. As the miners inspect the rock with its imbedded gem, the camera moves in for a close-up and bores right into the gem itself with its myriad of dazzling colors. This segues into a camera’s eye view of Howard’s innards during a colonoscopy. The many street scenes are shot on overcast days or in areas where tall buildings block the sunlight. A scene shot in a taxi’s interior at night shows the bright lights of the city through the rear window as Howard watches a basketball game on his phone. Howard’s salesroom is illuminated by neon fixtures, and highlight various pieces of jewelry as pink light backlights the actors. A scene at Howard’s daughter’s school play takes place in the rear of the darkened auditorium as Howard tries to evade impatient creditors and focus on the show.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English subtitles for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles are optional. There is very good balance from left and right with dialogue focused on the center. Sound design contributes significantly to the high energy of the film. Howard’s mind races from one scheme to another, as he knows he is precariously close to disaster if everything doesn’t fall into place perfectly. He gambles not only on basketball games, but on himself as he jumps from one risky decision to another. The dialogue is fast, often overlapping, reflecting Howard’s mind working at breakneck speed on a moment-to-moment basis. Scenes in Howard’s showroom reflect claustrophobia because the space is small and often crowded with many people at once.
Sixteen chapters are included for easy access to specific scenes in the 135-minute film. Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include the featurette Money on the Street: The Making of Uncut Gems, and a Digital code on a paper insert within the package.
Money on the Street: The Making of Uncut Gems – Co-screenwriter/directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie refer to Uncut Gems as a parable about aspirations, dreams, and gambling. The first version of the script, from 2012, was raw and underdeveloped but had energy. An actor was needed who could ground the character amid “absurd situations.” They wanted the audience to root for Howard. They talked to Adam Sandler after he watched two of their films and was favorably impressed. Sandler received the script and thought it was “real cool.” Known primarily for comedies, Sandler never had a role like Howard. He put pressure on himself to be true to the character. The directors speak highly of Sandler’s work ethic. The Safdies searched for former basketball players who looked as if they were still active. Kevin Garnett was a game changer because he was such a good actor, even though he had never acted before. The shooting schedule was intense. Much of the film was shot on the streets of New York. Eleven days were devoted to scenes shot on a soundstage. The audience is brought into the character of Howard and the decisions he makes. The pace is brisk and accompanied by a complex sound design of dialogue, traffic noises, and other ambient sound. Determined to do a superior job, Sandler notes that “every day was terrifying.”
– Dennis Seuling