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Review: Uncut Gems

January 1, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Some movies get better the second time you watch them and, for me at least, Uncut Gems, the latest film from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie following up their brilliant, live-wire 2017 thriller Good Time, is absolutely one of them. In fact, my rating jumped up by a full star upon my second viewing.

I was exhausted when I first saw the film on the final weekend of TIFF, and didn’t have the best experience with it. I was seated way up near the top of the balcony at the Ryerson Theatre, a spot from which the screen looks small and the heads of tall people have a tendency to block your view, forcing you to crane your neck in uncomfortable positions.

Add in the fact that I already had a headache, the by-product of over a week spent getting little sleep and seeing multiple movies a day, and watching the film honestly just felt like being pounded over the head for more than two hours. To be fair, watching Uncut Gems again under more ideal circumstances and in a much better setting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, still sort of feels like being pounded over the head. But now I can fully appreciate that this is exactly what the Safdie Brothers were going for with this sustained anxiety attack of a movie, which straps us in for the wild rollercoaster ride of watching a man experiencing the worst few days of his life.

The film is set in the spring of 2012, and all unfolds during Passover. The story follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweller in New York City’s diamond district, who sells to high-end clients but has the scrappy sensibility of a hustler, and is always looking for his next big score. Howard has just imported a chunk of rock from a mine in Ethiopa that is studded with rare black opals, which he intends to sell it at an auction, hoping to get at least a million for it. But Howard ends up getting talked into lending the rock to Boston Celtics basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who wants it as a good luck charm, and takes his NBA championship ring as collateral.

Howard brings the ring to a pawn shop, and takes the money that he gets for it to bet on the Celtics game, intending to buy back the ring using the money that he makes off the bet, and return it to Garnett in exchange for the gem-studded rock. But things inevitably don’t go as smoothly as he plans, and with debt collectors already chasing after him, Howard ends up having to navigate not only the expectations of his wealthy clients, but also his family. Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is pushing for a divorce, and he is also juggling a second life with the girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), that he has on the side.

In my TIFF review of Uncut Gems, I called the film a “stylish comedic thriller that is infused with a frantic, frazzled energy,” but also said that it “lacks the precision and tightness” of Good Time. While I still think Good Time is a notch above, watching Uncut Gems again revealed to me how carefully plotted the film actually is, with a lot of pieces that all fall into place perfectly. The loose, shambling feel of it is intentional, and the 134 minute running time that I initially found somewhat bloated is crucial to setting up a series of cascading actions that all ricochet off each other and start to topple like dominoes. Yes, it’s exhausting to watch, but that’s also the entire point.

At the centre of it all is a fully committed dramatic performance by Sandler, who acts the hell out of every scene. While primarily known for comedic roles, Sandler has also proven his dramatic abilities with excellent turns in films like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and this might just be the best work of his career. While Howard is a loud mouth and a perpetual screw-up who brings a good deal of his bad fortune upon himself with these overly risky bets, Sandler ensures that we still sort of like the guy, and feel genuinely bad for him as everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

We are essentially watching a high-stakes gambler make a series of risky bets, and the Safdie Brothers build and build the tension throughout the film, leading towards an explosive, suspenseful climax, with a moment that still shocks upon second viewing. The film is further heightened by Darius Khondji’s gritty cinematography, as well as brilliant, at times purposefully disorienting sound design, with the characters often talking and yelling over each other. This is topped off with another great electronic score by Daniel Lopatin, who also provided the propulsive music for Good Time.

Martin Scorsese has an executive producer credit on Uncut Gems, and the film has a pace that is reminiscent of his energized gangster classics like Goodfellas. This is a chaotic and often overbearing movie, and one that frequently overwhelms the senses as we are brought in to the sleazy and unpleasant world that Howard inhabits, but the Safdie Brothers deserve praise for pulling it off so well. Even if you find it off-putting at first, I would recommend giving this entertaining and at times exhilarating film a second chance. I’m glad that I did.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Uncut Gems is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of January 31st.

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