NYFF Review: ‘Uncut Gems’

Uncut Gems one-sheet poster

Uncut Gems | Josh + Benny Safdie | NYFF 2019

Time is money, and neither are things that Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has in Uncut Gems, the latest film from the brotherly director duo of Josh and Benny Safdie, which had its New York premiere Thursday night as this year’s New York Film Festival secret screening.

Howard is a Jewish jewelry shop owner knee-deep in trouble, owing various people significant sums of money with compiling interest and dwindling patience. As a compulsive gambler and professional schemer, he has a big plan in the works involving a valuable stone and former NBA legend Kevin Garnett (playing a 2012 version of himself) that he believes will help him win the big fat payday that will allow him to pay back the money that he owes Arno (Eric Bogosian) and keep Arno’s two thugs Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik) off his back. As he grows increasingly desperate, he struggles to keep his family – fed-up wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and their children – afloat while juggling a less-than-balanced affair with his employee, the much younger Julia (Julia Fox).

Uncut Gems still - Howard hustling

Like in their previous efforts Good Time and Heaven Knows What, the Safdies operate within the depths of New York, showing the seedy side of midtown Manhattan with the various crooks and shady figures that Howard has to deal with. It moves at breakneck speed, never stopping to catch its breath, a restless film with unshakable anxiety running through its veins. This will be a magnetic experience for some, maybe less so for others; it was the former for this writer. This makes Sandler the perfect fit for the role of the deranged Howard, who always thinks he’s five steps ahead of everyone but finds himself ten steps back and constantly clawing from behind to keep Arno and his thugs at bay. He’s a big-time schemer and you can’t help but stay glued to the screen and watch him work his magic, in both hilarious and frustrating fashion.

Howard is his own worst enemy, finding new ways to self-sabotage himself and everyone around him in his pawn-shop business. He loves the attention and goes with his gut instinct, even if it almost always leads him down a road of trouble – despite the best front that he puts up for his family. Even so, you’re still rooting for him the entire way through, as the Safdies frame it all in such a gripping fashion, thanks to the tightly framed cinematography from Darius Khondji (Okja, Lost City of Z) and the equally up-to-speed score from Daniel Lopatin (a returning Good Time collaborator). Both are propulsive forces that help keep the cocaine-like kinetic energy of the film going, with the sight and sound blaring at all angles, which convey Howard’s desperation and despair as the clock is ticking.

Uncut Gems still - a money handoff

The Safdies always find a way to mix professional actors with the non-professional, and once again they find a good use for many newcomers such as Fox and Kevin Garnett. While there are some appearances from sports radio figure Mike Francesa (as a shady bookie) and singer The Weeknd (as himself), Garnett is given quite a bit to do here and he does surprisingly well. The Safdies use all of the cast to help build this seedy underbelly of New York, a world full of pawning things that don’t even belong to you in order to raise some capital that you don’t have to make a bet to help pay off two people that would love to throw you out of a building window. The Safdies balance out the helter-skelter nature of it all with good use of humor. I mean, they ARE only working with Adam Sandler in the lead.

Out of his body of work, this is the strongest dramatic performance we’ve seen from Sandler since Punch Drunk Love. It’s become abundantly clear that Sandler has a much more dramatic range than good chunks of his filmography would leave the casual viewer to believe, but every so often he will surprise you with a good performance. He’s operating on a different level here, a crazy unhinged performance that he totally leans into and comes out swinging in glorious fashion. He’s been rightfully earning some early Awards chatter in recent weeks, and it’s just a matter of how the film will play to the usually stiffer audience that makes up the Academy’s voting body. But this is the sort of role that was so clearly meant for Sandler. You can’t possibly imagine anyone else pulling it off so naturally. This is Sandler’s show, but he works so well off the essential body of supporting characters, with standout performances coming from Fox, Menzel, Bogosian, Richards, Garnett, and Get Out & Sorry To Bother You‘s Lakeith Stanfield as Demany, an employee of Howard’s who connects him with Garnett.

Uncut Gems still - Kevin Garnett at an auction

If you’re already familiar with the work of the Safdies, you’ll be completely immersed and on the very edge of your seat throughout Uncut Gems‘ 135-minute runtime (a leaner 120 minutes may have been even better). While some will find it starts off a bit slow, there’s no denying the effective and riveting finale that is executed to its intended effect to absolute perfection. It’s very much a noisy and in your face presentation, the sort that some people will find abrasive and off-putting. But it’s all by design and it helps put you in the frantic mindset of a man desperate for many things – money, attention, love, and hope. Its finale is a well-earned victory that is shocking, immersive, and unforgettable, just like the entirety of this rousing success from Josh and Benny Safdie, who are making their case as some of the best young directors working at the moment.

Rating: 9.0/10

A24 releases Uncut Gems on December 13, 2019 (limited) before expanding 2 weeks later for a wide Christmas release.