This cautionary tale—even-when-you-win-you’re-still-a-loser—whose focus is gambling addiction and the pathetic, never ending quest for the “big score,” is an unsettling look at the joyless life of an addict.
Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, an eccentric jewelry dealer in Manhattan’s Diamond District. As performed by Sandler, Howard is part Tony Montana from Scarface (1983) and Arthur Fleck from Joker (2019): over-the-top, idiosyncratic men caught up and defensively dealing with pressing circumstances.
Maddening and manic, jittery and distracted, dirty-mouthed and unapologetic, Howard’s flash-point life moment comes when he purchases a giant uncut opal gemstone from an off-the-radar excavation in Ethiopia: he pays $100,000 but hopes to re-sell it for $1,000,000. It’s a bet, the bet of his life really, that will deliver him triumphant or destitute.
Director Josh Safdie and screenwriter Ronald Bronstein have fashioned a stark and dour portrait of someone out of control, submerged in fantasy, and unreachable. The people in Howard’s life are mere transient entertainments: colorful shadows that flicker for a moment and then slowly recede. It’s his addiction, and all that goes with it, that is Howard’s only preoccupation and concern.
Still, the people who move through Howard’s his life will be impactful. There’s basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), a man enchanted with Howard’s kaleidoscope-colored “uncut gem,” imbuing it with the celestial power of being able to help him win a series of basketball games; Dinah (Idina Menzel), Howard’s look-the-other-way wife, a beleaguered woman eager for an agreed upon divorce to take place; Julia (Julia Fox), his co-worker/girlfriend/confidant: a tart with a heart—she genuinely loves Howard, warts and all; and Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a young, black and streetwise connection to New York City’s monied, easy to scam, elite. (Look for The Weekend—yes, the chart-topping rapper from Canada—in a speaking/singing cameo).
Admirable, if only for Sandler’s return to the top as a lasting screen talent—he gives two-hundred percent in every single scene (which at more than two hours can be wearying), Uncut Gems is powerful and pertinent: an up-close character study with disturbingly recognizable tentacles. Shrill (everyone talks at the top of their voice all the time—and all at the same time) but unflinching and honest. Memorable.