Adam Sandler can, on occasion, work wonders with a more dramatic role. The key is to deepen the qualities of his comedic shtick rather than trying to ask him to play someone too far from his personality. Josh and Benny Safdie understand this in the same way that Paul Thomas Anderson did with Punch Drunk Love. In Uncut Gems, Sandler captivates as Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who is in over his head.
The film is an exhilarating and exhausting watch. Howard's life is in a constant state of chaos, much of it coming from his gambling addiction. Sandler gives Howard a manic charm as he talks fast and exudes neurotic energy. It is like he is channeling a young Al Pacino at times, combining ego, anger, hedonism, and sincerity all into one.
Howard is a junkie, always wanting to ride the next big win. He owes money all over town but can never make the safe bet and pay things off. Whenever he gets some money, he has to go try and get more. His wife (Idina Menzel) can barely put up with him. His oldest son is starting to see him as he truly is. His mistress is courting affection from R&B singer The Weeknd. His life is about to crumble.
Over the course of the two and half hour run time, Uncut Gems manages to sustain a level of nervousness that few others can. The Safdies specialize in this kind of tense thriller than never lets up. They also mine a great deal of humor out of such intensity. The film opens with a hilarious shift from looking inside a gemstone to exiting out Howard's colon during a colonoscopy. The gemstone is Howard's big chance, a rare black opal from Ethiopia that is his prized possession. When NBA star Kevin Garnett visits his shop, Howard can't help but show it off. Garnett is mystified by the rock and demands to have it. Garnett plays himself but allows for his image to shift around in the Safdie's hands.
New York City in the Safdie's vision is something stuck in the '70s and '80s. There is a seediness to how they depict the city that feels oddly nostalgic. It creates a credible world where such desperation can live. Desperation is at the heart of Uncut Gems. Cinematographer Darius Khondji keeps the film image grainy, shooting in claustrophobic close-ups often. Daniel Lopatin's score keeps things edgy and nervous.
Aside from the knockout performance from Sandler, Julia Fox also makes a terrific mark here. As his mistress, she is a complex character who is riveting every time she is on screen. Her chemistry with Sandler is palpable. But the film ultimately belongs to the Safdies. Their audacious direction creates something that feels completely unique. The last act of this film is so intense that I felt myself exhale finally when the credits rolled. Uncut Gems is an uneasy film but one that is as thrilling as it is queasy as it is ultimately moving. What a remarkable mixture the Safdies have perfected here.