There’s something acutely familiar right now about watching a consummate New York macher unable to help himself as he pursues more and more wealth, drawing everyone around him into his increasingly unstable house of cards until it all collapses.
But Uncut Gems, the latest panic attack from the Safide brothers (Josh and Benny, who also co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein), captures so much more than our current moment. For one, there’s the career-great performance from Adam Sandler. His take on Howard “Howie” Ratner buzzes seamlessly from typical Sandler ease to pathetic helplessness to manic moments of triumph.
Howie is a fonfer extraordinaire—a bullshit artist whose jewelry business in the Diamond District functions to help him continually feed his sports betting debts and keep his mistress (Julia Fox) happy with a Manhattan love nest. Whatever scant love and money are left over go to Howie’s family on Long Island (a point that sets up maybe the greatest music cue of the year, and one of the funniest moments in a movie that’s full of them).
When Howie gets caught up in his latest round of juggling debts, family drama and especially a rare Ethiopian black opal—a mysterious MacGuffin that transfixes anyone who sees it—the race is on to come up with enough money to appease his debtors while chasing the high of that one big score.
As Uncut Gems takes place in the long-ago days of 2012, that score revolves around a Celtics playoffs run. The Safdies throw a bone to New York sports with a Mike Francesa cameo, but it’s Kevin Garnett playing himself who almost steals the movie as one of Howie’s more fateful customers. Celebrity and proximity to power infuse Howie’s life almost as much as gambling—the Weeknd also puts in a memorable turn as an important buyer, and lends his moody, drug-fueled R&B to the soundtrack as well.
That prevailing mood is a defining feature of Uncut Gems. There’s the nonstop anxiety, but the Safdies and Sandler punctuate it with plenty of humor—and pathos. The Safdies are in a class of their own when it comes to drawing you in and making you care deeply about terrible people. Howie might be enjoying more outward success than Connie from the Safdies’ last movie Good Time, but it’s just as illusory. All debts must be paid.
And as with Good Time, the Safdies serve up subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders that our actions have consequences, even for those who seem to have put together a successful life around assiduously evading them.
The film opens with a scene of misery thousands of miles away from Howie’s cocooned suburban Long Island life. It’s a non-sequitur worthy of the Coen brothers, our other great chroniclers of anxiety and morality.
But the threat goes from menace to promise that none of us are immune from consequence, and the Potemkin lifestyles of the elite are built on shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for it all to come crashing down.