Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel
If you’ve never been to Six Flags Magic Mountain, let me assure you it has more roller coasters than any park in the world…big ones, small ones, fast ones, slow ones, new ones, old ones…a coaster for every age and level of bravery. My wife and I went one summer, and since coasters are my favorite ride at any park, I was up for the challenge.
Then I rode Goliath. At the time, it was the longest, tallest and fastest coaster in the world. Some poor lady even suffered a heart attack and died on the ride just a few years earlier. As for this would-be thrillseeker, Goliath turned out to be a bit more than I bargained for…not only scary, but loud, overwhelming and relentless. While I didn’t have a coronary or toss my cookies, when the ride was finally over, the main thing I felt was relief.
Uncut Gems is kind-of like riding Goliath, which isn’t intended as criticism.
The film is getting a lot of attention because of Adam Sandler in a role that’s certainly atypical of the man-children he’s made a career from. Some say he was snubbed during awards season, but I don’t know if I’d go that far. Sure, it’s the best thing Sandler has ever done and he’s mesmerizing as brash, fast-talking gambling addict Howard Ratner. But is his performance really a huge stretch? As a comedian and actor, Sandler’s generally loud, brash and – in my opinion – obnoxiously overbearing. Since Ratner displays all these traits and more, it’s arguably a character he was born to play (albeit with a lot more F-bombs).
As for the film, Uncut Gems is 135 minutes of relentless anxiety as we watch Ratner’s downward spiral. Arguably the film’s protagonist and antagonist, he’s his own worst enemy. An unscrupulous gem dealer, Ratner has gambling debts all over town and is barely a step ahead of those trying to collect, including brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), who appears to have mob connections. After acquiring a rare stone that could solve all his financial woes, Ratner still can’t get out of his own way, trying to dupe others into paying more than its worth (such as NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing himself) so he can settle his debts. But even then, Ratner is literally unable to stop gambling with money that isn’t his.
I was immediately reminded of Bad Lieutenant, another film featuring a remorseless main character whose downfall is the entire plot. Uncut Games isn’t nearly as off-putting, but cut from the same cloth. Ratner isn’t a likable character, neglecting his own family, alienating everyone close to him and growing increasingly narcissistic. Yet we watch with fascinated dread as he repeatedly digs himself deeper, to the point we’re certain everything’s gonna end badly. The most powerful moment comes late in the story when Ratner’s sitting in his office, bawling helplessly as the walls close in, yet he still doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions. That scene might be the best of Sandler’s entire career.
Howard Ratner’s descent into self-destruction is morbidly compelling and Sadler knocks it out of the park with a manic performance that – for once – suits the character perfectly. Extremely well-written, directed and performed, Uncut Gems is a character study that plays like a thriller (though the grating score is awful). Similar to riding Goliath, it’s an exhausting, uncomfortable ride that doesn’t let the viewer off until the end credits roll. As good as it is, I gotta say I was kind of relieved when it was finally over.