Uncut Gems

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 25, 2020

'Uncut Gems'
'Uncut Gems'  

Available digitally today!

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How many films have you watched that include a seemingly repulsive human being and their headlong dive into their worst vices? What "Uncut Gems" presupposes (and exasperatingly argues) is that, despite all faults, even the most doggedly self-destructive and ignorant humans aren't without merit. That underneath all the apprehension lies something decent, even if that decency is defined by that person's own terms.

Hopefully all the heady ideation above doesn't deter from the fact that this new Adam Sandler-starring film is not only the best thing made this year, but also one of the funniest and most anxiety-inducing narratives ever to be shot. Josh and Benny Safdie, the duo behind 2017's "Good Time" and a myriad of other projects you should seek out immediately, once again put the art of the con in the spotlight and interrogate the notion that genuine human empathy is removed when a person swindles their way through life. They're able to pull the gambit off with equal shades gusto and keenness to crack into the mindset of the characters as if they were, well, uncut gems

Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a shyster of a jewel dealer in New York City, constantly looking for his next big score. When a gem he ordered from Ethiopia shows up and could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, he bets all he has. But with bookies, his mistress, and other adversaries all coming to collect, Howard has to keep doubling down on his actions. Will he ever get the ultimate win?

As much as "Uncut Gems" is pleased with reveling and watching Howard navigate tricky situations one after the other, the onus is on Sandler to perform it all with a sense of charming naivete. If we take Howard's actions at face value, it's easy to see why so many people fucking hate him. He constantly screws people out of money and dodges his creditors. Even worse, he cheats on his wife (Idina Menzel). Yet, the pursuit of that ultimate win is part of what makes Howard's journey so enthralling. The audience knows that no matter what he wins or doesn't win, Howard is still looking for something to fill the void within. And Sandler is the perfect actor to play the fast-talking Jewish man with a deep and inescapable addiction at the center of it all.

The rhythm of the film is assaultive, but saying so may even be reductive to the overall feel. The Safdie brothers are constantly moving the camera as if it's conscious and invested in the story. This isn't an outsider's perspective of the situation as much as it's a view of someone also looking for the thrills that Howard is so apt to go after. That isn't meant to be preachy or negate the fact that what the audience is watching is something upsetting. On the contrary, it's rendering every minute action on a grand emotional scale because these small details matter. You may laugh and even cry, but it's due to the aesthetic that so many of the film's ideas are able to land. I'm thinking of what a bland prestige filmmaker would have done with the material, and the thought is terrifying in how sanitized everything would be.

Plus, as a story that also takes place around Passover, "Uncut Gems" takes great care and deeply immerses itself in the Jewish religion. It's no mistake that many of the most brutal incidents take root over Seder, as it's a tradition once designed by an entire people looking for independence from their enslavers. Howard, albeit for different reasons, is the schlemiel hoping for the same.