LFF 2019: Uncut Gems Review
In 2003, Adam Sandler signed on to make a film that almost changed the course of his career forever. He was one of the highest paid comedians in Hollywood at the time, but was fully prepared to subvert his image and sign on to star in a new action blockbuster opposite Tom Cruise, to be directed by Michael Mann. The film was Collateral, and as fantastic as Jamie Foxx eventually was in the role, it’s impossible not to wonder just what Mann’s Los Angeles noir would look like with Sandler in the driver’s seat, as the cabbie pushed over the edge as he unwittingly becomes a hitman’s accomplice.
Several directors (including Quentin Tarantino, who wanted him for Inglourious Basterds) have tried to get Sandler to stray off the comedy path to make something darker in the years since, but to no avail. Nobody bursts into fits of rage like Sandler, and although the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach have figured out how to make this fit into a more dramatic narrative, they still barely scratched the surface of just how dark this comic persona could be if placed in the right hands. Enter the Safdie Brothers, who after the success of Good Time have revisited an idea for a thriller loosely based on a family friend, which they conceived a decade prior. Back then, they sent the treatment to Adam Sandler, with no luck. Ten years later, and he’s giving his finest performance to date in their career best thriller Uncut Gems, a farcical tale set in Manhattan’s diamond district that’s pitched somewhere between Robert Altman and a sustained anxiety attack.
Set in 2012, Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jewellery store owner who makes most of his money through Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a man on Ratner’s payroll to bring famous people into the store. One day, Demany invites NBA player Kevin Garnett (gamely playing himself), just as Howard’s prized delivery is arriving: an unrefined opal from an Ethiopian gold mine, that he intends to auction for over a million dollars. Garnett takes a shine to the opal, and insists Howard loan it to him as a good luck charm for his big game that night - Howard reluctantly agrees, and in the process, kicks off a chain of poor decisions and terrible get rich quick schemes that put him further in the debts of seemingly the entire state of New York.
When it received its UK premiere as the London Film Festival’s surprise film, the screening was greeted by numerous walkouts, the audience seemingly horrified by the sheer abrasiveness of the Safdies’ vision. There isn’t anything in here quite as visceral as their two previous films, Heaven Knows What and Good Time, but it’s no less anxiety inducing, albeit in a way where I can understand why more literal minded viewers would turn off. Howard’s various overlapping get rich quick schemes, and his need to place high stakes gambling bets when he does make money, is very deliberately exhausting; every time he comes up with a win that would clear his debts, he throws himself head first into yet another bad idea.
It makes for a fantastically tense drama, with Sandler’s comedic background really helping to heighten the deliberately farcical nature of the character’s decisions. But for those who like simplicity in their narrative structures, the way Uncut Gems keeps pulling infinite rugs from under the audience, the lead character descending further into pure madness, will understandably be an acquired taste. The Safdies’ style is also far less welcoming than their previous flirtation with a crime drama in the mould of vintage Scorsese. A bold introductory sequence, where the inside of the opal slowly reveals itself to be footage from Howard’s colonoscopy, quickly gives way to a sequence that can best be described as Altman on steroids; various people in the jewellery store shouting over each other for nearly ten minutes, as Howard shows off his prized possessions.
Many of the film’s detractors have taken against this opening as being symptomatic of the whole film’s style, but that couldn’t be further from the truth - many of the film’s best sequences are the quiet (well, quieter) character moments with Howard and his family, and his employee with whom he’s having a barely hidden affair. Here, Uncut Gems proves to be a better vehicle for the archetypal Sandler anger-stricken manchild than any of his recent out and out comedies. The Safdies inherently understand his strengths as an actor, tailoring the film around his talents as much as it pushes him out of his comfort zone. In so many of his recent Netflix films, he’s been sleepwalking from scene to scene, barely rising to the standards of the already lazy material. You definitely couldn’t accuse him of the same thing here.
Uncut Gems premiered at the London Film Festival, and will be released in select cinemas and Netflix in January 2020.