‘Uncut Gems’ Review: Sandman’s Madman Grand Plan Spans Prostate Glands and Contraband

January 10, 2020

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a movie in theaters this winter. Now keep it raised if, before any of these movies, you saw a trailer for “Uncut Gems.” You’re not sure? It’s got Adam Sandler with pomade-laden hair limping through Manhattan’s diamond district showing off a gem-encrusted Furby to Kevin Garnett (yeah, the real Kevin Garnett). Okay, now keep your hand raised if, upon seeing the trailer, you had any clue what “Uncut Gems” was about. No one? Let me help.

The film follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a total train wreck of a man. Howard has a very stressful life, you see. He has to balance his home life in the suburbs with his McMansion, wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), and kids; his city life with his midtown Manhattan apartment, mistress (Julia Fox), and parties with The Weeknd (yeah, he’s in this movie too), while dodging a whole host of skeevy and violent debt collectors, all of whom he genuinely owes. Howard’s a gambling addict, a compulsive liar and an unfaithful husband, and maybe the third most greedy character in the film. Despite his having the general personality and moral backbone of a half-full trash bag left outside an 8th Ave. strip club, we’re left with no choice but to root for him as he makes increasingly risky bets in the pursuit of bigger and bigger wins.

In “Uncut Gems,” directorial brother-duo Josh and Benny Safdie have conjured up several seemingly unthinkable cinematic achievements. First, they have molded Adam Sandler into an Oscar-buzz-worthy leading man. Second, they made a movie whose genuinely believable plot is entirely contingent upon Kevin Garnett (playing himself) really liking a shiny rock. And third, they made me utterly delighted to spend $16 (plus popcorn) to watch what is essentially a two hour and ten-minute panic attack.

So often, good scripts are sullied by overacting and visibly intentional performance. However “Uncut Gems,” a film full of outrageous events and larger-than-life characters, manages to somehow remain convincing. This is very impressive, yet sort of unsurprising, considering that many members of the cast are first-time actors. The main debt collector/tough guy, Phil (Kieth Williams Richards), who spends the movie roughing up Howard every time he’s on screen, was an actual debt collector/tough guy in real life; this is his first acting credit. He doesn’t seem like an amateur on screen. He seems like he’s just doing what he does every day. Julia Fox, who plays Howard’s extra-marital girlfriend, also makes her screen debut in the film, and she’s a definite standout. With easily the most emotionally complex supporting role, Fox brings to life a character that is so much more than the objectified eye candy a lesser movie would’ve made the mistress role out to be: she’s a complex and three-dimensional character.

The rest of the cast is rock solid too. Lakeith Stanfield is as great as he is in everything he does (dear Hollywood, please put Stanfield in every movie) and Idina Menzel, albeit in a smaller role than a talent of her caliber warrants, plays off Sandler perfectly as his completely exhausted, soon to be ex-wife. Kevin Garnett also gives a highly authentic performance as “2012 Kevin Garnett.”

If a review mustn’t be glowing to be taken seriously, I might point out that “Uncut Gems” isn’t really about very much. Sure, it has some rather obvious things to say about wealth and greed. For one whole (brief) Garnett monologue, it even gives a cursory glance to global racism and inequality, before Howard fiercely veers the conversation back to winning, wealth and greed. Some characters are slightly archetypal, and I can’t say I left the theater with any feelings or thoughts I didn’t previously possess when I entered. I don’t really care though. It’s impeccably crafted and utterly thrilling; there’s not a dull moment.

The Safdie brothers keep you stress-eating your popcorn from the opening credits, which take place inside of a colonoscopy (seriously, inside), to the end of the film. Does anyone truly need to see “Uncut Gems?” No. Will you enjoy it? I sure did. Anyway, you’re going to be seeing a million ads for this film right up through Oscar season, so you might as well catch the real thing on the big screen. I think it’s worth the hype.

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