Wednesday 18 November 2020

Movie Review: Uncut Gems (2019)

A high-energy drama and character study, Uncut Gems draws power from a hustler teetering on the edge of either ruin or the win of a lifetime. 

The setting is 2012 in New York's Diamond District. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) runs a jewelry business but is in over his head. Addicted to betting on basketball and a serial liar, Howard owes money all over town, including a large amount to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). Howard is married to Dinah (Idina Menzel) but is openly having an affair with his store assistant Julia (Julia Fox). 

With Arno's goons applying increasing pressure, Howard obtains a rare and potentially precious black opal mined in Africa. His client contact Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) into the store, and he is immediately entranced by the rock, believing it has mystical powers and will elevate his game. Howard spots an audacious opportunity of a lifetime to bet on Garnett's performance and cash in on the opal to wipe out his debts.

Exceptionally foul-mouthed and manipulative, Howard Ratner is a compelling and deeply flawed man, but also unfortunately not an individual worth caring about. The writing/directing team of brothers Josh and Benny Safdie invest an over-long 135 minutes into Howard's antics, and while a train wreck fascination is undeniable, protagonist sympathy never materializes and ultimately Uncut Gems is dragged down by the stench of self-destruction.

Displaying few if any redeeming qualities, Howard believes he is smarter than everyone else and can say anything to anyone at anytime just to feed his self-gratifying addictions. In fact he is a pathetic loser with dwindling options, and while pity emerges as the strongest theme, it is doubtful Howard is even worth that.

Embracing the unappealing moral darkness at the center of the film, Adam Sandler sheds his more typical lightweight screen persona and delivers one of his career best performances, bulldozing through multiple chapters of windfalls and catastrophes as Howard craves only the next thrill. With the Safdies overly enamored with the star power of Garnett and singer The Weeknd, the supporting cast is thin and the secondary characters fleeting, Howard's attention span insufficient to give due prominence to anyone else.

The aesthetics are a potent combination of gritty and stylish, although an early visit to the Ethiopian gem mines promises more than it delivers. With an obnoxious soul, Uncut Gems is a loudmouthed rock offering only a grimy shine.

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