Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Film for Those Who Like Their Gems Unpolished

Frankly, I can’t pretend I enjoyed watching Uncut Gems. And anyone who hates the unrelenting pace of today’s New York City should definitely stay away. This film is so loud, so hyperactive, and so profane that it leaves you with barely a moment to catch your breath. Yes, it feels real, but this isn’t a reality I’d personally enjoy spending time in.

That being said, I have to confess I admire what the Safdie brothers have accomplished. Before Uncut Gems, I had never seen anything by Josh and Benny Safdie, the young (ages 35 and 33) indie filmmakers who grew up in the Big Apple and have incorporated its frenetic rhythms into their movies. Their exuberant fascination with the seamy side of New York life is much like that of the early Martin Scorsese, which makes it not at all surprising that Scorsese himself is an executive producer of this film. Vivid characters, rat-a-tat dialogue, spot-on casting, Darius Khondji’s sometimes dazzling cinematography: all these contribute to a view of Manhattan’s Diamond District that is too specific to be disbelieved. Most essential, of course, is the central performance of Adam Sandler, who has earned legitimate kudos for going far beyond the goofy comic roles of his earlier films.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a small-time Diamond District jeweler with a big-time gambling problem. His attempt to sell basketball star Kevin Garnett (nicely playing a more naïve version of himself) on a particularly fabulous South African black opal coincides with his desperate need to pay off a massive gambling debt or risk facing the wrath of some particularly twitchy loan sharks. But then there’s also the wrath of  his wife, ferociously played by Idina Menzel. She may or may not know about his girlfriend in the city, but she certainly recognizes that he’s been neglecting his three kids for the sake of his personal obsessions.

Obsession is definitely something this film is about. Howard wants to be a good guy—really, he does—but his fascination with the thrill of a big financial score leaves him too hopped up to settle for quiet domesticity in the suburbs. The intensity of his behavior is dialed to eleven. A motormouth at the best of times, he jokes, he flirts, he rants, he cajoles, he connives, he ingratiates himself with those in power and tries to channel what clout he has left against those lower in the pecking order. But he proves not the only obsessive in Unxcut Gems. Kevin Garnett, who in the timeframe of the movie was a Boston Celtic forward involved in a crucial playoff series with the New York Knicks, is obsessed with anything that will bring him luck on the basketball court. The thugs pursuing Howard are not going to be stopped, no matter what. And the pretty young employee who doubles as his girlfriend (newcomer Julia Fox) is loyal to a fault. At first I wondered why in the world she’d cling to a not-so-attractive middle-aged guy with powerful enemies: surely she could do better. I suspect the answer is that she too is obsessed, and obsessions can make little sense at the best of times.

Another theme that sheds light on this film is the randomness of the universe. No one—not Howard, not Kevin, not the loan sharks—can absolutely guarantee what is to come. Throughout scenes depicting basketball games, casino betting, gem auctions, and business shenanigans, we have an uneasy feeling that something unexpected is about to happen. And, sure enough, it does. As the Safdies know full well, that’s the way of the world.

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