Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, the writer/director team who brought us the frenetic thriller GOOD TIME (2017), are back at it again with UNCUT GEMS (2019), another frenzied tale, this one about a New York City jeweler played by Adam Sandler in one of his best dramatic performances ever who is so addicted to gambling he can’t go a second without trying to set up the next big bet.
And that’s pretty much the plot of UNCUT GEMS. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a jeweler who simply can’t stop gambling. It’s his passion in life, and it comes at the expense of his family, friends, business, and his own personal safety, as he constantly owes people, some of them dangerous, lots of money.
The opening moments of the film set the tone for the rest of the movie. Ratner is on his phone walking the streets of New York City chattering and swearing at an insane pace, balancing multiple deals and situations simultaneously. The film never looks back. It pretty much keeps up this frantic pace for its entire two-hour and fifteen minute running time. It’s ultimately an exhausting experience.
Ratner runs a private business, the type of place where he buzzes in his upscale eclectic clients through two doors, one made of bullet proof glass. One of his clients, Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, played here by himself, eyes a rare rock which Ratner tells him is worth millions. Garnett wants it, but Ratner tells him it’s not for sale, that he’s putting it up for auction, and that Garnett is welcome to bid on it. Garnett asks to keep it overnight, and for collateral he gives Ratner his championship ring.
This sets off a series of chain reactions, as Ratner pawns the ring, Garnett doesn’t give the rock back immediately, and Ratner owes some dangerous people large sums of money that he ultimately promises he will get them after he pulls off a monster bet on the Boston Celtics playoff game against the 76ers, since he knows Garnett is extra pumped for the game since he has in his possession his “mystical” rock.
All this occurs against the back drop of Ratner’s crumbling family life. He’s never around for his family, his wife is filing for divorce, his extended religious Jewish family has no idea what’s going on, and he’s having an affair and sharing an apartment with his beautiful employee Julia (Julia Fox) who for some reason finds Ratner irresistible.
If you haven’t noticed, Ratner really isn’t that likable a guy, and for me, that’s one of the biggest knocks against UNCUT GEMS. I didn’t like Ratner all that much and didn’t really care what happened to him, and so I was nowhere near as invested in the plot of this one as I had expected to be.
Benny and Josh Safdie have made another high-octane manic tale, but that being said, I liked their previous effort GOOD TIME much better than UNCUT GEMS. GOOD TIME was a thriller with characters who while they weren’t nice people— they were bank robbers— were involved in a story that the audience could relate to and get behind. That’s not the case here with UNCUT GEMS. In GOOD TIME, the main character was trying to rescue his learning disabled brother after a bank robbery gone wrong. In UNCUT GEMS, Howard Ratner is out for no one other than himself. He basically screws over everyone he comes in contact with, not because he’s a bad person necessarily, but because he’s focused on one thing and one thing only: the next big score. Nothing else matters to him. It’s what he lives for.
So I have mixed feelings on the screenplay by Benny and Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. On the one hand, it succeeds in creating a wild and unpredictable story that is fresh and unnerving throughout, but it fails to create characters who you give two cents for.
Adam Sandler is as good as advertised. It’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him deliver. Ever. He’s really good. Unfortunately, the character he’s playing, Howard Ratner, is an unlikable gambling addict who’s pretty much a toxic person throughout.
In spite of Sandler’s presence, UNCUT GEMS is not a comedy. I know in some circles the film is being touted as a “dramedy” but there’s little that is funny about this movie. In fact, the predominant emotion here is sadness. Ratner is on a collision course with disaster, and there’s nothing in the film that deviates from this gloomy mood. You just know where this one is going to go from the get-go.
That being said, it was fun to see Kevin Garnett play himself. And sure, by playing himself he’s not going to receive many accolades for his acting performance, but he is consistently natural and never once appears to be “acting.”
I also liked Julia Fox as Ratner’s girlfriend Julia. Other notables in the cast include Eric Brogosian as one of Ratner’s more violent adversaries, and Judd Hirsch as Ratner’s father.
The film does have some good moments, but most of these are terribly depressing. One brief light bit involves John Amos as himself as one of Ratner’s neighbors.
Daniel Lopatin wrote the music score, and it’s very similar to the score he wrote for GOOD TIME. I enjoyed his GOOD TIME score more. Here, the music’s main job seems to be to add more cacophony to the already insane proceedings.
UNCUT GEMS is an exhausting and mostly depressing film. Its pace actually picks up towards the end, which is almost unbelievable, as Ratner waits on the results of the Celtics playoff game to see if he’ll win his big score. This climactic sequence is probably the best part of the movie.
But the film as a whole is uneven at best because its main character Howard Ratner embodies little else other than a one way ticket to the gutter.
It’s rough and raw, but hardly a gem.