Adam Sandler is Unbound in the Almost Unbearably Intense ‘Uncut Gems’

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Abel Tesfaye, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesa

Director: Ben and Josh Safdie

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: R for Shouted Overlapping Profanity, the Violence of High-Stakes Gambling, and a Few Sexy Times

Release Date: December 13, 2019 (Limited)

I know some people who don’t love sports but are able to appreciate athletics when it’s in a movie because you really get to see the emotions and stories behind the games. That has perhaps never been more viscerally true than it is in the climax of Uncut Gems, which hinges on a specific stat line in the deciding game in the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. There are millions of dollars at stake in high-profile events like these, and writing-directing brother Josh and Benny Safdie were astute enough to realize that they could craft a particularly gripping narrative out of one story behind those millions. To wit: New York City diamond district jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has placed a bet on the performance of Boston’s star baller Kevin Garnett, and it is no exaggeration to say that it is probably the most significant bet he has ever placed in his life.

The thrill of Sandler working with auteurist directors is that they don’t ask him to change his persona. Rather, they push him to be the most fascinating version of himself. As is the case with Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love or Danny Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Howard fits squarely within the classic Sandler mold. He’s an unapologetically shouty, emotionally sloppy man-child, but with a dash more (or rather, a hundred dashes more) of recklessness than usual. He’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt all around town, particularly with his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who’s hired a couple of heavies to hound him. But he’s recently come into possession of an extremely valuable precious stone from Ethiopia that could be worth millions. His mixture of predicament and great fortune leads him to broker a potential deal with a precious metal-hungry Garnett, while also dealing with a malfunctioning door buzzer, getting locked while naked in his car trunk, and a wife (Idina Menzel) who can barely stand him. He does also have a much younger girlfriend (Julia Fox) who’s crazy about him, but not in a way that’s particularly healthy for either of them. Anyway, even with all that boiling in the stew, Howard actually has a few opportunities to clear his debt, but he just can’t help himself as he keeps doubling down and going for an even bigger score.

Uncut Gems is a natural companion piece with the Safdies’ last film, 2017’s Good Time, which starred Robert Pattinson and Ben Safdie as a couple of low-level bank-robbing brothers. Uncut Gems matches Good Time for claustrophobia and raises the stakes in terms of catastrophic decision-making, but it allows for the possibility of hope that a happy ending is somehow possible. A lot of that is thanks to Sandler, who when he is actually invested in a performance is so immensely likeable (and is still fairly likeable even when he’s being lazy). It’s not hard to root for Howard. That of course leads to the question, should we really be rooting for him? If all his high-risk decisions work out (and logic dictates that they certainly can), then he’ll never learn to live more reasonably. But at a certain point, with the whirlwind that his life causes everyone around him, I just want it to end. If it all goes wrong for Howard, it also goes wrong for so many people who don’t deserve it. There a few possibilities for how this can all end, all of which are guaranteed to leave you with a ton of adrenaline pumping.

Uncut Gems is Recommended If You Like: Good Time, the NBA playoffs, Colonoscopies set to synth music

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 African Jews

This Is a Movie Review: Robert Pattinson is a Low-Level Bank Robber and Devoted Brother in the Grainy, Queens-Set ‘Good Time’

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi

Director: Ben and Josh Safdie

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for the Vices of a Night in the City

Release Date: August 11, 2017 (Limited)

How far would you go for a better life for yourself and your brother? If said brother is mentally handicapped and you are the lead character in a crime-on-the-streets movie, then chances are the answer is “pretty far.” Ergo, there is no surprise about the general forces that pushes Good Time along, but the details are quite unpredictable.

The majority of the plot follows Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) in a desperate night through Queens as he attempts to correct his mistakes and bust his brother Nick (co-director Ben Safdie) out of jail following a botched bank robbery. He first attempts to cover the bail money by turning to a friend/lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is way too old for him and for her own lack of emotional maturity. But another snag pops up when it is revealed that Nick is under police supervision in the hospital. Connie plows forward with his improvisation, but it becomes more and more obvious that he is not going to pull off his scheme, what with law enforcement always nearby and the caprices of fate constantly messing with him. It all adds up to a night of drugs, mistaken identity, and an empty amusement park in a land where cliché need not apply.

The joys of Good Time – and its biggest weakness – are aesthetic. The Safdie brothers exclusively favor extreme close-ups for conversations and kinetic camera movement when characters go from here to there. The shot selection, combined with the grainy digital cinematography and bass-heavy synth score, create a sensorially overwhelming experience that too few films attempt. The photography does get into a bit of trouble whenever the action moves into especially dark corners, rendering it nearly impossible to make out anything that is happening. That is possibly intentional, but it is not advisable. But in a film with this much clarity and consistency of vision, that is only a minor quibble.

Good Time is Recommended If You Like: Robert Pattinson’s auteur collaborations, Miami Vice, The economic desperation of Don’t Breathe

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dye Packs