The opening sequence of Uncut Gems transports you through the eye of a raw opal and at some unknown point, takes a detour that spits you out in the bed of Adam Sandler’s colon.
It’s a remarkable sequence, the product of some no doubt pretty bizarre email exchanges between the Safdie brothers and their special effects team. It’s also an apt beginning to a film which has a habit of playfully wrong footing its audience every chance it gets.
The film operates in the heart of the New York City diamond district, following gem merchant and gambling addict Howard (Adam Sandler) in his frantic attempts to possess a rare black opal. The film feels like it’s sprung from the grit of the city, every frame of it tinged with soiled fluorescent light that makes the cheap look brilliant and the brilliant look cheap.
It is quickly established that Howard owes money to his loan shark brother in law (Eric Bogosian), and that his repayment plan involves auctioning off a chunk of Ethiopian rock containing several raw opals. Kevin Garnett appears in the film as himself, and also develops a fascination with the stone, believing it will bring him luck on game night.
Howard ends up loaning Garnett the stone, who then gives Howard one of his rings as collateral, which Howard then pawns for cash, which he then bets on the Celtics game. Practically all the film’s action unfolds in this fashion; risky hare-brained schemes involving gamble upon gamble, where if one thing were to go wrong a domino effect of disaster would ensue.
It is frequently a sight that you want to tear your eyes away from, simply because it is so anxiety provoking to watch Howard pinball from one insanely risky scheme to the next. (The music is key to amplifying the film’s intensity, its manic pace finds a match in Daniel Loptain’s pulsing score). Yet it’s also impossible to look away. Adam Sandler is mesmerising in this film. You can’t help but care what happens to him, about wanting his crazy risks to pay off while all the while finding his company detestable. Howard is duplicitous and creepy and impossibly frustrating. To be in his company is to feel that you are part of a rising wave of panic; tied to someone intent on self-destruction, who all the while bears the grin of an eternal optimist.
Yet you still root for him, again and again. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about the performance that is so captivating, but the Safdie’s conceived of the project nearly a decade ago, and said that Sandler was the only person that they could think of who could make it work. There is a strange atonal sense of humour in his performance that leeches into every part of the film (in part because he’s rarely off screen). It is there when he’s being beaten senseless by thugs he owes money to, there when he bets all the money that he doesn’t have against the odds on a Celtics game, there when, in a particularly creepy scene, he lurks in a darkened apartment, spying on his mistress as she touches herself. It’s something akin to light relief, a frantic comedy bubbling under its surface, keeping the grimness of what’s happening just light enough to bear.
Perhaps the greatest thing this film does it to allow you to become so embroiled in the emotional life of a character who is, by all accounts, utterly unsympathetic. The Safdie’s have a very particular way of presenting their characters to the audience, a lack of judgement that verges on playful. It gives their films a sort of tonal amorality that prevents them from ever taking themselves too seriously. It is this same deadpan quality that is key to Sandlar’s comedy, and by planting him in their crime thriller, the Safdie’s push Uncut Gems to edges of genre conventions, as well as let Sandler prove that he’s a formidable actor (when he bothers to be).
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