Uncut Gems review: An adrenaline shot of a movie
Katherine McLaughlin | On 31, Jan 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel
Watch Uncut Gems online in the UK: Netflix UK
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The Safdie Brothers follow up their electrifying breakout film Good Time with an antagonistic, adrenaline shot of a movie. The pair, Josh and Benny, have spent years creating a catalogue of flawed and desperate thrill-seekers that are often based on reality. With Uncut Gems they carve out a caustic, compulsive gambler, NYC hustler and jewellery dealer who sells diamond-encrusted Furbies, among other gaudy items.
Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner – a character who can only be described as a complete piece of work. He’s spent the majority of his life taking risks on high-stakes sports bets, eventually landing himself in hot water with the bookies he’s been taking for a ride. Ten years in the making, Sandler turned down early versions of the script, with names such as Harvey Keitel and Sacha Baron Cohen attached along the way. Sandler’s eventual agreement proved to be a coup for the ambitious filmmakers, as he strikes gold with an unforgettable performance that blends traits from both his mainstream comedies, such as Happy Gilmore, and arthouse fare, such as Punch-Drunk Love.
The film excels at plunging us into the mindset of Ratner and the terrible decisions he makes, with gritty cinematography and kinetic camerawork from Darius Khondji, a manic and occasionally giggle-inducing soundtrack of synth, percussion and woodwind from Daniel Lopatin, and a melancholy edge drummed up by Sandler’s sensational turn. The NY diamond district is used with an eye for detail and authenticity, with real-life jewellers cast to strike a discordant ambience as fiery negotiations take place and fast deals are made.
The meeting point between materialistic wealth and spiritual and physical wellness is examined via an opening scene where we are witness to an accident, as Ethiopian miners search for a rare black opal and are then magically guided up Ratner’s anus as he’s undergoing a colonoscopy. From the very start it spits in the face of the capitalist nightmare with heaps of humour and a captivating oddness. It crafts an atmosphere that can be equated to the highs and lows of living in a gig economy – a place where people relentlessly worry about money and feverishly live off the whiff of social media likes.
Ratner chooses an opulent lifestyle and is met with few admirers and many detractors. The supporting cast is a bold mix of actors and real people who all add their unique charm to a simmering portrait of a man who does not think about the repercussions of his actions for those around him. Idina Menzel plays his long-suffering wife, Dinah, who is sick and tired of his BS. Julia Fox, as his mistress and employee, inexplicably adores him and Lakeith Stanfield‘s fellow wheeler and dealer pushes Ratner to new and deserved extremes of misery. Meanwhile, basketball player Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd both play themselves and get gleeful moments to wind up the central character into fits of jealousy and rage. Eric Bogosian’s intensely intimidating turn is also one of many highlights.
The breakneck speed at which a sweaty, flustered Ratner persistently lands himself in trouble recalls the stressful experience of watching Elaine May’s nail-biting 1976 crime thriller Mikey and Nicky starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. It’s a high bar that the Safdies elegantly reach.
Uncut Gems is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.