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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Uncut Gems movie review: diamond in the blech (#LFF2019)

Uncut Gems red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There is real cinematic tension in this own-worst-enemy tale of addiction and its ever escalating series of bad bets. But Adam Sandler’s unfettered arrogance renders it far from endearing or fun.
I’m “biast” (pro): really liked the Safdies’ previous film…
I’m “biast” (con): …but really cannot abide Adam Sandler
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Uncut Gems is one of those “his own worst enemy” capers. You know, the kind of movie where you sit there for two hours watching some doofus constantly trip over his own laces — usually figuratively, sometimes literally — on the way to a personal epiphany about how all his bad choices and lack of useful self-awareness have led him to whatever unpleasant place they lead him to.

These movies can be cringeworthy in the protagonist’s pathos, either amusingly so or enragingly so. They can engender sympathy or contempt or — ideally — a combination of the two that nevertheless keeps you on his side. It’s a tricky mix to get the balance to a place where the audience is walking that fine line with the protagonist, the cockiness leavened by poignancy. You should feel like this guy is probably right to hate himself, but you still want him to win. Gems directors and cowriters (with Ronald Bronstein) Benny and Josh Safdie pulled this high-wire act off beautifully with their 2017 film Good Time, in which Robert Pattinson’s small-time crook engages in an endless doubling-down on appalling decisions, but does so out of a desperate love for a brother who is unable to care for himself. His brain may be malfunctioning, but his heart is in the right place.

Uncut Gems Adam Sandler

Bejeweled Furbies. This is the world Howie walks in.

The Safdies’ followup, alas, trades that rough tenderness for unfettered arrogance in the shape of Adam Sandler’s (Pixels, Men, Women & Children) Howard Ratner, a New York City dealer in high-end bling. Uncut Gems may come laden with the Safdies’ grim arthouse cachet — they previously made a film about heroin and suicide — but this is in every way An Adam Sandler Movie. From the title, which suggests the positing of its asshole protagonist as some kind of heroic diamond in the rough, to the presence of an adoring much-younger girlfriend (newcomer Julia Fox) slavishly devoted to Howie for no apparent reason. Howie also has an estranged, age-appropriate wife (Idina Menzel: Frozen II, Enchanted), who screeches at him a lot. She, naturally, is almost as big a villain here as–

Well, no spoilers. We are dragged along here as Howie alternately runs around Manhattan’s Diamond District and locks himself in his high-security showroom as he attempts to pull off his biggest score yet: turning the large hunk of raw black opal he has imported from Africa into a larger hunk of cash. His plan involves an auction at a fictional luxury house à la Christie’s or Sotheby’s, but before he can get there, he has other, smaller deals to make in an ever escalating series of bad moves: the first involves pawning an item of incredible sentimental and financial value that is not his to pawn. And when his deals go wrong, as they inevitably do, he has to up the ante on himself, hoping for a bigger payoff on the next one in order to keep the juggling act in motion.

Uncut Gems Adam Sandler

Taking photos of cash piles to prove you can pay someone who will break your legs if you don’t. This is also the world Howie walks in.

Uncut Gems is a movie about addiction: Howie is a compulsive gambler — sometimes it seems he will risk obscene amounts of money just for the “fun” of it. And the Safdies mine undeniable cinematic tension out of Howie’s predicament: sometimes it’s physical tension, because people who have lots of cash around to play with are generally unhappy to be the one getting played, and would like to hurt the player. But often it’s psychological tension of exactly the sort you’d imagine: every time Howie digs himself deeper into his hole, you want to scream at the screen for him to just stop it already. Or for someone else to stop him.

This kind of tension should be fun, and it would be, if Howie were worth caring about. But Sandler’s smirking is not endearing or even vaguely interesting — except, perhaps, to those who are already fans of Sandler’s typical antics. To me, they are a turd not polishable by the Safdies’ indie cred, and as Uncut Gems lumbers to its finale — at two hours and 15 minutes, it takes too long to get there — I knew that there were only two ways Howie’s exploits could end: either well, in which case he would get to celebrate his triumph, or badly, in which case the movie would get to lament him as a tragic figure. Either would end up infuriating me. And I was correct in this.

’Uncut Gems’ was the Surprise Film at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.

red light 2 stars

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Uncut Gems (2019) | directed by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
US/Can release: Dec 13 2019
UK/Ire release: Jan 10 2020

MPAA: rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, sex references, injury detail, violence)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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