Adam Sandler is a fantastic character actor. These characters are often man-children, but not so in Uncut Gems. Howard Ratner is a fully developed, gambling-addicted, jewelry store owner. The Safdie brothers create an anxiety-ridden fever dream world around Howard and the Diamond District of New York City.
I am still trying to figure out if I liked this movie; it is great, but did I like it? I know it is a well-constructed movie, and I want to see more Safdie brothers’ productions. The entire movie is anxiety-inducing as Howard Ratner continues to raise the stakes on his gambles. This is not a comedy and there are very few parts that release the tension that this movie builds.
Idina Menzel plays Dinah Ratner, Howard’s estranged wife. She flips back and forth between her true feelings of hatred toward Howard in private and her charade of affection for him in public. Her ability to flip between these two states as people enter and exit a scene is more proof that she can bring her Broadway skills to the silver screen in live-action.
Dinah is the only character that Howard’s fast-talking doesn’t work on. He must have a reputation around New York as we see multiple debit collectors and interactions with the same loan sharks repeatedly, yet he still manages to get credit. You feel compassion for Howard at times only to see him throw away small gains for the next big score. It is infuriating, you just want to reach out and stop his self-destructive behavior.
The audience isn’t the only people who want Howard to stop making more debits. He owes a loan shark, Arno, $100,000. Arno relies on his two tough guys, Phil and Nico, to collect his debts. They are ‘guns-for-hire’ and have a long leash back to Arno. They are all very intimidating each time they re-appear on screen. They are played to perfection for peak emotional response from the audience. This ad to your sense of anxiety as you wonder how far they will go to collect on Howard’s debit to Arno.
The film is shot in a way that piles on even more anxiety. It feels cramped at all the right times as we twist and turn through narrow hallways in small offices in the Diamond District. The angles of some shots are also unsettling when they need to be. While the city is not as gritty as Taxidriver, there is a perceptible level of grit over the entire city. The cinematography is on point and a feast for your eyes beyond all the jewelry sparkling in the background.
The movie is very fast-paced as is Howard’s talking and deal-making; at times it feels too frenetic. The movie was entertaining despite my elevated heart rate throughout. My biggest criticism is with the ending. The race that the movie is in doesn’t end with a smooth crossing of the finish line or even a giant fiery crash. The movie slams into an immovable brick wall. I am left wondering how much control the characters had over each, or how they got entangled with each other. I think this was a great movie and shows just how good Adam Sandler is. He chooses to make stupid movies for a reason, but when given the chance to elevate a performance he always does; Punch Drunk Love, 50 First Dates. Don’t go into this movie expecting to come out relaxed, expect to come out ready to discuss it with everyone.