One Liner Review:
The rare case where a movie doesn’t actually pick up until the second half, this one manages to get us interested at first and then really deliver as it goes on.
Talk about an interesting and unique movie. This one chronicles a few days in the life of a jewelry salesman in the financial district who is also an addicted gambler, constantly trying to make it big. That means he is placing bets all over town while at the same time owing money to all different bookies. And we follow him as he not only tries to escape or con the bookies every chance he can get, but also takes whatever new money he has coming in and finds a way to turn it into a bet, instead of paying off his debts. Howard is constantly making deals, constantly trying to pull tricks on people throughout this movie. A main storyline involves a rare stone, called the opal, and how Howard gets a basketball player interested in it, only to sell it at an auction and try to drive up the price so that the basketball player will shell out way more than it is worth. The movie works because of its fast paced tone and energy, and unique character. But it doesn’t actually start working until the second half. The first half of the movie is a little too all over the place and confusing. Howard is running around, being yelled at and harassed by people everywhere he goes, and we are right there alongside him, getting a feel of his world. It’s pretty tough to follow for a while. But once the movie starts to calm down and settle in a bit, the real plot can begin and the audience can start to appreciate it.
Many movies follow a path where they start out pretty good, but slowly lose steam and momentum the longer they go on. They have a nice premise that gets them started, (and is featured in the trailers, which is why we go to see it in the first place,) but then the question comes up of whether or not the movie will be able to sustain that premise or keep things evolving and fresh, as it continues to unfold. In most cases, the answer is no. An hour and a half to two hours is a long time to have to stall, if all you’ve got is a good premise and an ending, but no in between. And if that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter how good the ending is… if you lose the audience long before the end, snd they check out and stop caring, then the end won’t be enough to bring them back. Not completely, anyway. Well, Uncut Gems is NOT one of these movies. In fact, it is the rare movie that takes the exact opposite path. This is a movie that has a rough first half, but then actually morphs into something much better and more interesting in the second. It’s first half isn’t bad, it’s just challenging and uncomfortable. But the second half most definitely makes up for it.
To understand this movie is to understand all of the moving pieces involved. First there’s the star, Adam Sandler. He has never been better than he is in this movie. He may never be this good again. For the first time, he truly embodies a character that is nothing like himself. He gets lost in the performance to the point where he is practically unrecognizable (not physically, of course – he still looks like Sandler, but the way he talks and acts.) Sandler is a comedian. He got his break on Saturday Night Live in the nineties, spiraled that into a movie career, and started off strong, (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore,) before making movies that turned out worse and worse. His comedies might still do well, but boy have they gotten bad. As a serious actor, Sandler has dipped his toe into those waters every now and again, most notably with Punch Drunk Love (others include Reign Over Me and Spanglish.) But Punch Drunk Love was his most artistic (it was a Paul Thomas Anderson film,) and yet it was still a black comedy, and definitely played on its comedic elements. Uncut Gems, on the other hand, is no comedy at all. This one is the real deal. And Sandler has nothing to fall back on in this movie. It’s a go for broke performance that he knocks right out of the park.
The other moving piece to look at here are the directors… the Safdie Brothers. The guys who made this movie. These directors have made tons and tons of shorts before they turned their attention to feature films. They started out with an indie film called Heaven Knows What about heroin and suicide and a girl trying to find forgiveness for her misdeeds. And they used that to get their next thing, just like they had done with their shorts before it. Their next thing was Good TIme, starring Robert Patrick, and that was a hell of a film. It was a single guy on the run, one night following the character as he tried to break his brother out of a hospital and escape the police – movie. The film packed real thrills and excitement into an edge of your seat thriller. We usually think of the word thriller in association with mystery. Good Time wasn’t a mystery. And neither is Uncut Gems for that matter. They are both dramas. Only they are unlike dramas you have ever seen. These are heightened dramas, filled with tension and excitement, and some pretty ugly looks at people’s lives. Good TIme was fantastic, and the Safdie Brothers were able to use that to take on an even bigger project… Uncut Gems.
With this movie, The Safdie Brothers do not compromise their vision or style in any way. They might actually be the most unique filmmakers working today, or at least the most fresh and new to our time (someone like Wes Anderson, for example, is still the most unique, but we are used to his style by now, whereas these guys are brand new.) They have a style that is jarring and often very in your face, uncomfortable. And yet it works for putting the audience into the world of the characters, and all of its unpleasantness. Here, in Uncut Gems, the first hour of the movie is this. The first half of the movie, really. It is just characters talking over each other, moving from one quick situation to the next, watching Howard Ratner (Sandler,) get slapped around in his own store by guys coming in wanting to buy jewelry and not getting the deal or treatment they expect.
Howard is a gambler. And he’s a gambler of the worst kind. He’s a guy who is behind in debt and owes a ton of money to all different bookies, and yet whenever he gets the money to pay them back, he takes that money and uses it to make new bets. He doesn’t pay off his debts. And so he keeps getting slapped around and beaten. He acts like it’s all a game, and like he can escape these bookies in all different ways, and have fun with them. Sometimes that means giving them a fake watch and pretending it’s a Rolex. Sometimes it means passing the money out through a window so that the guys in the next room don’t see it. And sometimes it means locking the bookies in a small entranceway and playing around with them. Howie doesn’t seem to get that there are real consequences to his actions, and it’s incredibly infuriating to both the viewer and also to the other people in his life (including the bookies, themselves.)
During that first hour, we mainly spend time in and around Howard’s store. It’s one of those tiny shops where it’s all one showroom and then a back office, in the finance district of Manhattan. We meet Howard’s “partner,” Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, who has been having quite a year between Sorry To Bother You, Knives Out, and now this.) Like everyone that Howard comes across, Demany does not show Howard respect. And it’s understandable why… Demany brings people there, to Howard’s store, hoping they will buy the watches that Howard is holding for him. Only Howard doesn’t have the watches, because he has pawned them. He can buy them back from the pawn store, but for now, he has taken the money from them and simply used it to place more bets. Still, Demany brings people there, looking to get a cut of whatever they buy.
One of the people he brings is NBA basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself in this movie.) Part of the movie follows the story of this rare rock called an opal. It is a solid piece with either multiple diamonds in it, or one huge diamond, where you can only see parts of it poking out from different areas of the rock. We open the movie in the African mines where the opal is found. And then we follow it back to the states, where Howard receives it. In fact, Garnett is in the story when Howard gets it, and Howard, wanting to show off, brings Garnett to his back office to show him what just arrived. Garnett wants the opal and makes Howard a deal to get it. He gives Howard his Boston Celtics ring, and the arrangement is that each of them is just holding onto the other’s belonging for a day or two, and then they will trade back. This whole arrangement is strange. Garnett wants to see if the opal brings him luck. It does. And so after he gives it back to Howard, he decides that he wants to buy it for himself.
Aside from Garnet and Demany, and all of the bookies, there are also some important women in Howard’s life… two of them. There’s his wife, Dina played by Idina Menzel. Then there’s his girlfriend, Julia, (played by Julia Fox in a breakout performance… you can expect to see more of this actress in the future.) Howard is in the process of getting divorced from his wife. Only they haven’t really begun. All they have done is talked about it, and decided to wait until after Passover. Meanwhile, Howard has a relationship with this other woman, Julia, who he works with at the store. Howard owns an apartment in the city, away from where he lives with his family, and Julie lives and stays there. Like everything else going on here, this movie drops us right into the middle of their relationship, with Howard showing up and hiding in the closet to surprise her one night, while she thinks he is in a cab, on his way home. It just shows the playfulness and somewhat immaturity of this guy, who thinks everything in life is a joke.
The movie basically chronicles a few days in the life of Howard, when he thinks he is on the verge of finally hitting it big. The Passover holiday falls during this time, which is used here to really help establish relationships between family members. We learn that the bookie, Arno (the man Howard owes money to, who has been having his goons threaten and beat Howard,) is actually a family member. We also eat an elderly uncle or grandfather, (played by the great Judd Hirsch,) who will come into the story later on when Howard needs his help during an auction. The Passover scene works as a perfect transitional point to separate the two halves of the movie. We have already met Arno in the first half, so now we get the full flushing out of who his character is. And by introducing us to the Judd Hirsch character, it propels us into the second half. It is also one of the few scenes in the movie that is not about business in any way.
But most of the movie is. It’s about business or betting or both. Howard tries to play everybody and every bet he makes off the next, thinking that none of it will catch up to him. And the way we follow Howard from place to place really helps put us in his shoes and experience this lifestyle where everything is happening super fast, people are always yelling, and there never seems to be a moment to breathe. When Howard has a colonoscopy, and gets the results back, the results are good, but Howard doesn’t get a moment to appreciate or be happy about that. The reason why is because while he is on the phone with the doctor, getting these results, he is also getting yelled at and yelling back at Demany. We go with Howard to an out of state basketball practice, just to find Kevin Garnett, to try and get the opal back. We go with him to a concert featuring the Weekend just to give him a chance to meet up with Demany. It’s all going from one place to the next, trying to make deals or swindle someone. The whole point of the auction is to drive up the price in order to swindle Kevin Garnet. It’s a pretty wild ride of a movie. Unfortunately it doesn’t start getting good until the second half. While I can appreciate what they were trying to do in the first half, the movie takes a little too long to settle down, and let us catch our breath. Still, this one is definitely different and interesting in all kinds of ways.