Uncut Gems (2019)
Directed by Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Produced by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Sebastian Bear-McClard
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Cinematography by Darius Khondji
Edited by Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie
Music by Daniel Lopatin
(2:15) Regal Waugh Chapel, Gambrills, MD
When I was a kid, I was too young to appreciate the work of comedian Steve Allen, but he said one thing that always stuck with me: “All comedy is tragedy.” (I think the full quote goes, “All comedy is tragedy plus time.”) I thought about that quote a lot while watching Uncut Gems, the new Adam Sandler movie, which is probably unlike most other Adam Sandler movies. (I don’t exactly qualify as an authority in that area.) Having seen Good Time (2017), the previous movie directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, I had a pretty good idea what to expect here. Most Sandler followers are probably prepared for the actor/comedian’s usual schtick and, at least from the 57% Rotten Tomatoes score from fans (compared to 93% from the critics), they’re coming away disappointed. How did I feel about it?
If all comedy is indeed tragedy, there’s a fine line separating the two, and attempting to walk that line is very, very difficult. Uncut Gems contains moments that risk laughter from the audience (especially hardcore Sandler fans), and had the Safdies played it differently, they could’ve easily elicited such laughs. Even after the film’s grim opening with a dying worker in an Ethiopian mining operation, the next scene could easily have been played for comedy: Sandler’s character Howard Ratner getting a colonoscopy. But colonoscopies are neither fun nor anything to laugh about. Like the fine line between comedy and tragedy, they can point the way to good health or approaching death.
After his colonoscopy, Ratner winds his way through the streets of New York, yelling (and mostly cursing) at people at the other end of his cellphone. He’s a jeweler and a gambler, a serious combination that flirts with wealth and poverty, dealing with big-time people in both ventures. Not only can he juggle both enterprises, he can also juggle conversations at an alarming speed, which is part of his problem: When you talk a lot, you listen less.
While dodging loan sharks, Ratner is trying to realize a huge score. He’s acquired a large rock containing beautiful unrefined, uncut black opals, a piece he hopes to auction off for big bucks, which will get the loan shark thugs off his neck. Meanwhile he’s ignoring his ex-wife (Idina Menzel) and children as well as his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) and his employees, particularly Ratner’s assistant and client recruiter Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). After all, when a basketball star like Kevin Garnett is fascinated with the stone and wants to buy it before the auction even begins, you tend to ignore everything else.
Those are just the basics. Uncut Gems is a whirlwind of a film with Ratner getting in deeper and deeper with all kinds of problems as he makes deals, places bets, and makes bets on bets, digging himself deeper into holes even Godzilla couldn’t escape from. Add to this an intense sense of claustrophobia in nearly every other scene, and the film becomes a nightmare of gut-wrenching suspense.
Yet Ratner’s biggest problem isn't really gambling or bad choices, but rather one many of us no doubt face from time to time: a lack of contentment. For every victory he attains, he focuses only on what he doesn’t have, and then we’re on to the next deal or bet in a constant downward cycle. His family has had enough, his business associates have had enough, and just maybe the audience has had enough. Despite the film’s breakneck speed, it’s far too long at 135 minutes. It certainly feels like Uncut Gems is a film with lots and lots of moving parts, but it actually contains just a few moving parts that need constant attention: the loan sharks, the employees, the family, the girlfriend, and Kevin Garnett.
We have more than enough examples of Ratner’s selfish and reckless character, but the script just keeps piling on more, perhaps in an attempt to let us know just how selfish and reckless he really is. Other scenes appear to focus on the wrong thing. For example, after a fight, Julia and Ratner go their separate ways, but we’re now in Julia’s point of view. I was expecting this to go somewhere, for us to learn something about her that perhaps Ratner doesn’t know, but nothing really happens. In another scene, when Ratner stops by his apartment, taking his son with him, he warns the boy not to tell his mother that there’s a girl staying there. Wouldn’t he already know that? I thought the real point of the scene was to indicate that the son was learning to deceive others (in this case, Ratner’s neighbor in a mildly funny scene involving going to the bathroom), just like his dad.
That’s not to say there aren’t good scenes; there are. Even ones that are predictable can still be effective. I had a pretty good idea where the film was going as we approached the end, and as soon as Ratner put on the dark glasses at his office, I knew for sure. The glasses tell us that he’s gone totally dark, that there’s no redemption, at least for him. During the final tableau with Ratner in his office, his forcing the loan sharks to watch the big game he’s bet on behind bullet-proof glass, is suspenseful, but the outcome was really no surprise. All Ratner ever needed was just one whiff of success for him to continue down the path to self-destruction. And don’t get me wrong, there are great movies about self-destructing and/or deplorable characters out there (Raging Bull and There Will Be Blood, to name just a couple, and even the Safdies' own Good Time is quite impressive), but I never really felt like I wanted Ratner to win, and I certainly knew he wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t surprised, but was anybody, really?
The film contains some great performances (and I was delighted to see Judd Hirsch, who’s very good as Ratner’s father-in-law) and wonderful moments, such as Ratner reading out a list of curses in English from the Hebrew Bible as his aunt (?) reads them in Hebrew at a family meal. But for me, 135 minutes of Ratner was a bit too much. Uncut Gems is just that: a film that’s not refined, nor, I suppose, is it meant to be. It’s raw, it goads you to yearn for the unrealized potential in human flourishing, and it makes us very anxious and uncomfortable. Maybe that’s the point. It succeeds on many levels, yet it is a film I appreciate and admire more than a film I actually like.
Photos: The New York Times, Hey Alma, New Yorker, Star Tribune