When the brothers Safdie (Ben and Josh) made Good Time in 2017, the thriller centering on low-life crime figures contained segments that showed the duo was capable of creating something special. Clearly influenced by similar grimy pics in the 1970s, that film gave Robert Pattinson a role that drew him far away from a sullen romantic vampire and is primarily responsible for his current career trajectory. However, I found Good Time better in spots than as a cohesive whole. Their follow-up is Uncut Gems and it’s the “something special” that was hinted at in their predecessor.
In many ways, it stays in the Good Time lane. The setting is again the Big Apple. The characters are again a level of bottom dwelling criminals who aren’t exactly top level at their professions. And like Pattinson, Gems allows a very famous actor to try something different. Here it’s Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, who owns a diamond store and is a degenerate gambler. In Howard’s universe, there’s not a problem that he can’t seem to make worse.
His family life is in a constant state of chaos as his wife (Idina Menzel) is ready to freeze him out and his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark that Howard owes money to. Then there’s his girlfriend Julie (Julia Fox, in her feature debut) who works for him and is a consistent source of stress. Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is his business associate charged with bringing in celebrities and high rollers to the store. He finds one in Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays himself and does so memorably.
When Howard gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal, it sets off a series of frenzied events. Garnett is obsessed with purchasing the rarity while Howard looks to cash in with it at auction. The hoped for financial windfall means he can pay his off his considerable debts. Yet Howard just cannot help himself as one scheme simply leads to the next one, including betting on his NBA client for large sums of money.
Like Good Time, the pacing here is relentless. For over two hours, the screenplay and direction immerse us in Howard’s out of control daily existence. It’s exhilarating and Sandler deserves a lot of the credit. These days, it’s rare to see the performer in anything other than middling to less than middling Netflix comedies. Seeing him rise to the challenge in more dramatic material shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as we saw it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love nearly two decades ago. It’s just been a while. Howard is onscreen nearly the entire running time and for good reason. You can’t take your eyes off him.
The lead’s remarkable work is accentuated by his supporting cast. This especially applies to the women in his life as both Menzel and Fox are given notable scenes reacting to Howard’s never-ending foibles. By the time the credits roll, one could argue Uncut Gems has the happiest ending it could have if you really ponder it. This is a tale of addiction in a highly stylized setting where Howard just can’t become the winner he pines to be. His turmoil is interrupted by brief glimpses of happiness and we witness a couple of great ones. In the era that the Safdies are paying homage, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro might have played Howard. Sandler gets the job here and knocks it out the park. It’s something special.
**** (out of four)