I will admit I was not familiar with the Safdie brothers until recently, but I was surprised to learn they were the directors of one of 2017’s most underrated films “Good Time”, a non-stop crime thriller filled with energy, suspense and an entertaining sense of chaos embodied by the characters. It seems the duo has a very specific style to their filmmaking because this same description also applies to their latest film “Uncut Gems”, a movie that has many talking potential Oscar gold for star Adam Sandler. In the film Sandler plays Howard, a gambling addict who gets caught up in a series of questionable deals to pay off a debt leading to a domino effect all centered around a rare opal that has caught the eye of former Celtics great Kevin Garnett who plays himself in the movie. A lot of focus has been put on this film as a resurgence of Sandler’s credibility and a front runner for many best of the year lists. The buzz was so great I decided to see one of the earliest showings I could and find out for myself if it really is worth the hype. Let’s see if there really is some shine to this supposed gem of a film, this is my review of “Uncut Gems”.
The Safdie brothers have established themselves as exerts of the crime thriller. With “Good Time” they presented us with a pulse-pounding night of chaos that never seemed to let up or stop for a breather, forcing the viewer to invest in and even experience the anxiety of the main characters. That same approach was taken for “Uncut Gems” which always has so much going on its almost uncomfortable and that’s a very good thing. Everything moves at a rocket’s pace from pretty much the very first moment. Storylines and character relationships are thrown at us one right after another and each scene moves with a chaotic grace that makes it all feel so delightfully uncomfortable. The camerawork and structure and pacing is designed to put the viewer on edge, to keep them guessing what’s going to happen next and to allow the viewer to experience the same chaos that Sandler’s Howard is experiencing in his head as he moves from deal to deal trying to get a leg up. I was on the edge of my seat almost the entire movie simply because I could feel the emotions running through Howard’s mixed up mind. It was so much fun and kept be invested and engaged the entire picture although I will admit, as my friend who saw the movie with me can attest, it might be too much for some as the story moves so quickly that it might be too uncomfortable or complicated to follow if you’re not prepared for it.
The whole movie centers around Adam Sandler as Howard, a performance that will hopefully earn him an Oscar nomination at the very least as it’s further proof of Sandler’s ability to play a complex and layered character in a dramatic role. Howard is relatable, lovable and hateable all at once and there’s not a moment that he’s on screen where you’re sure which of these three defines him the most. Sometimes we want to see him succeed, other times we know he deserves to fail, and other times we are forced to genuinely wonder if we would do anything different if we were in his shoes. Sandler is responsible for keeping all the energy going throughout the movie and he succeeds with one of his career best. But he’s not the only shining star of the picture as pretty much everyone fully embraces the style of storytelling the Safdie brothers evoked for the movie. Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield and newcomer Julia Fox all play supporting characters who further Howard’s story but also have well defined personalities of their own and have to work around Howard’s paranoia in order to live their lives. Even Kevin Garnett does a fun job playing himself and is surprisingly fully on board. Every performance feels alive and energetic keeping the tone and style of the film intact and allowing us a cast of genuinely interesting people to get behind.
I think one of the things that makes “Uncut Gems” stand out too is that it’s such a unique story. I don’t remember ever seeing anything quite like this movie other than “Good Time” which in itself was a very different narrative just told in the same style. “Uncut Gems” isn’t your typical crime caper. It’s just a tale of a man who gets in over his head and engages in shady activity to try and pay off his debt, each subsequent move leaving him in an even bigger hole until the films finale where we see one of the most energetic 15 minutes of film 2019 has had to offer. Normally stories like this involving gambling and such don’t intrigue me but “Uncut Gems” brought me right in because it felt like a real story that could happen to any of us. Howard isn’t smart, but he’s a risk taker and sometimes things work his way through sheer dumb luck giving him a false sense of superiority over the world. He could be any of us on the wrong day, or the right day, and that’s what makes this scenario so much fun. Best of all, the drama and thrills are balanced out by some effective comedic moments that take advantage of not only Sandler’s timing but also the skills of his co-stars as well making this a multi-layered picture not only in narrative but in tone as well.
Maybe the films weakest elements is the opal that serves as the centerpiece of the story. It’s a clear McGuffin that Howard sees as a luck maker as Kevin Garnett finds himself fascinated with the rock opening the door for all the action in the movie to take place. I do kind of feel like there was a better way to set things in motion than a rare rock, but even then the opal serves an important symbolic role in the story. While the film never reveals if there’s any true magic properties to the item, like a true gambling addict its Howard’s faith in chance and superstition that helps drive his obsession with the item. Garnett only seems to do good when he has the Opal. The Safdie brothers set the film in 2012 during the NBA playoffs matchup between the Celtics and 76ers using real game footage perfectly to drive home Garnett’s confidence with the rock. So whether Howard believes the rock is magic or not is irrelevant. The opal is a tool he uses to try and swing the odds in his favor as he constantly gambles on the Celtics knowing Garnett has more confidence with the rock in hand. This is a spectacular way of showcasing the obsessive nature of problem gamblers. A lot of thought went into Howard’s personality and how one event would lead to another in this movie and it’s surprisingly easy to follow amidst its fast pace.
“Uncut Gems” is, in itself, a gem of a film. It just keeps moving and yet you always know what’s going on and you’re always invested in the action at hand. Adam Sandler leads a committed cast that is fully on board with the chaos of the Safdie brother’s defining style that keeps you on edge for the duration of the movie to its explosive end. This is anxiety-inducing filmmaking at its best bringing you right into the action and rarely ever slowing down to take a breath. The story is engaging and relatively unique for today’s audience, and certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s just an all-around fun film that keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire way as it explores one man’s chaotic and self-destructive actions that take us on a wild ride through the effects of gambling addiction and the fast paced life that its main character choses to embrace. It’s so small in scale yet feels so big, so fast yet so well paced, so off the hinges and yet so controlled. “Uncut Gems” is definitely a must see experience, but one that you need to be prepared for to truly appreciate.