Directors: Joshua Safdie, Benny Safdie
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield
Anyone familiar with the cinema of Joshua and Benny Safdie might well feel a sense of dislocation at the opening of their latest, Uncut Gems. The boys have come up and made a name for themselves with a brash, guerrilla-style of filmmaking back and forth across the boroughs of New York City, capturing a kind of astonishing energy few others have achieved, not even notable greats like William Friedkin. Uncut Gems opens with a camera drifting high over Ethiopian mines. A far cry indeed. But rest assured, this is only a temporary detour and, if anything, acts as a primer for an upscaling of ambition for the feted brothers.
Adam Sandler stars as jeweller and itinerant gambler Howard Ratner, who we meet in the midst of a colonoscopy; the end of the rainbow following a microcosmic journey through the centre of an opal (the Safdies’ wicked sense of humour at work). Ratner is in deep, owing money all over town from a series of bad bets on basketball. The answers to all his problems has arrived by courier, however. The titular gem, all the way from Ethiopia, which he swears is worth a cool million and is set for auction the next day. Too bad that no sooner has it been delivered, it manages to slip right through his fingers.
Thus begins an odyssey of frantic checks and balances, “robbing Peter to pay Paul” as Buscemi’s Fargo character might say. When Howard’s on a roll, Uncut Gems glimmers with hedonistic wonder. The kind of purity of spirit last seen in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Julia Fox is on hand in elaborate underwear for his pleasure as employee and mistress Julia. Thing is… Howard’s not usually on a roll. The rest of the time the movie elicits the cold sweat of panic. And Howard refuses to learn. Of course he refuses. He’s as addicted to the fevered fear and hot-footing as he is his high-stakes wagers.
Sandler is the latest great get for the Safdies following their notable collaboration with Robert Pattinson two years back on Good Time. The brothers clearly have a thing for the underdog (just look at their roster of protagonists) picking imminently talented actors who, for whatever reason, struggle for credibility in certain circles. Doubters of Sandler may be surprised by his powerhouse performance here, but the prolific comic has shown more than once his capacity for seriously great work. Still unsure? Check out Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and get back to me. Uncut Gems might be his most dynamite performance since that one. Sandler’s Potty-mouthed Ratner is powered forward out of necessity – an extension of the anxiety that’s coursed through a lot of his work – here channeled into sheer mortal restlessness.
Sandler isn’t the only prized rock in the cast. The aforementioned Fox sparkles in a role that rings as nothing but true, while perennial favourite Lakeith Stanfield adds extra agitation as Demany, Ratner’s long-suffering associate. Keep an ear out, also, for voice cameos from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne.
Constantly trailed by heavies, Ratner cannot keep still. This evergreen itch infects the whole movie. Cinematographer Darius Khondji adds a new slickness to their trademark roaming camera work, but that over-caffeinated energy remains. That sense of snatch and grab. Of a movie made in spite or everything. For his part, composer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) ensures that the soundtrack percolates right along with Ratner. So we’re sent spinning through a garish, frequently neon-lit carnival of bejewelled Furbies and cramped car trunks, The Weeknd gigs and after parties, punch-ups set to Kendrick Lamar and hilariously uncomfortable security door malfunctions. Once again New York plays itself, as intrinsic a part of the brothers’ cinematic recipe as any other variable. Still, in all things there’s the brimming sense of evolution; that the Safdies are constantly refining, improving; that Uncut Gems has garnered such attention for a reason. Stretching to 135 minutes, this is their epic, guys. Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure.
What’s new? Arguably the fleeting oases of calm. Exhibit A being a rare moment of quiet confrontation between Ratner and his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) over his infidelity. Oh, did I not mention that Howard is also an earnest family man? The layers of car crash to this man’s life are as impressive as the manner in which they’re transmitted to us. Full-on as Uncut Gems can be, its in the softer moments that one sees a potential road-map to the future. Which is not to suggest an eagerness for the Safdies to slow down or lose their freneticism, but rather the promise of rangier material in the years ahead.
This will likely be their biggest crossover hit thus far. Partly down to Sandler, partly because it just feels like their time (ironic, as the film is set – arbitrarily in 2012). If you like what you see, start working backwards quickly. It’s a safe bet.