“I heard you had your swimming pool resurfaced,” is one of the more benign threats you’d expect to hear in a thriller, but coming from Arno (Eric Bogosian), it drips with menace. You see, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) owes Arno a great deal of money, and Howard has been using that money he borrowed to line bets up all over NYC. Howard thinks he can talk his way through this with Arno, but he’s not really talking to Arno, he’s dealing with first-class psychopath Phil (Keith William Richards). Like any gambling addict, Howard’s optimism knows no bounds, but he likely didn’t see himself getting stripped and stuffed into the back of his wife’s SUV. Howard plays off every new calamity with an assurance that everything will be fine, and it’s easy to believe him. Uncut Gems counts on that belief to put the collective nerves of viewers in a vice and ratchet them up for two straight hours.
The Safdie brothers – whose last film, Good Time, redefined Robert Pattinson for a lot of moviegoers – are prepared to show you a new side of Adam Sandler. Sandler’s man-child persona has been folded into something more self-destructive this time around. Howard Ratner exudes chaos merely through being. An addict relies on highs, but there aren’t any highs for Howard, just an ever-continuing series of lows that put him deeper in debt. Yet that six-figure debt never stops Howard from itching for his next payday. Howard is a jeweler in Manhattan’s famed Diamond District, ergo he doesn’t need to be doing any of this. He has a luxurious home, a family, a mistress (Julia Fox), and her own apartment to boot; he just wants more.
Howard’s latest score involves a black opal from northern Ethiopia that catches the eye of NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett. Howard’s already promised the opal to an auctioneer, but he agrees to loan the stone to Garnett in exchange for his championship ring. This isn’t an altruistic move, however, Howard senses something in the way that Garnett eyes the opal and Howard wants to make money off whatever that look means. Using Garnett’s ring as collateral, he puts a massive bet down to clear his books for good.
As this is a Safdie brothers movie, you can imagine things won’t prove so easy for Howard. The immersion into this deeply anxious film starts with Howard, passed out on a doctor’s table, receiving a colonoscopy. To truly pass that discomfort on to the audience, cinematographer Darius Khondji does a deep zoom through Howard’s colon. That is the only time of rest as Howard perpetually moves forward, stumbling through one transaction with other people’s money into another, dodging Arno and his associates (somewhat) successfully, and trying to keep his head above water. The pulse of the score by Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) becomes indistinguishable from Howard’s racing heartbeat. It’s an unrelenting presence that feels like waiting two hours to exhale.
Adam Sandler knows how to turn it up when called on (Punch Drunk Love, Funny People) and his performance as Howard Ratner is not only one of the best roles of 2019, but maybe his entire career. Equally, con-artist and schmuck, Howard deludes himself just as much as the people relying on him to pay them back. When a broken and beaten Howard yells “I’m exhausted,” it’s perhaps the only true thing he says. The man is so comically self-absorbed that he hardly notices the high-risk situations he puts his family and Julia (Julia Fox, in a breakout performance) into. What makes Sandler’s time as Howard so endlessly watchable is because his unpredictability often leads to disaster. Though it’s tempting to regard as a one-man show, Uncut Gems surrounds Sandler with an outstanding supporting cast. In addition to Eric Bogosian, Julia Fox, and Keith William Richards, the film adds LaKeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, and a scene-stealing Kevin Garnett to bounce against Sandler.
Of course, as entertaining and comedic as Uncut Gems can be, the Safdies are always ready to catch that laugh in the back of your throat. Just as Darius Khondji began the film with a spiraling journey through the black opal, he ends the film just the same. A cold reminder that we come from the same Earth as that opal and return to it in a blink. With that transition, the Safdies reveal their fatalistic worldview: Howard isn’t unique in his eternal quest for more everything. We’re all just scrounging for money until we have our tickets punched.