Adam Sandler never stops acting in Uncut Gems; if he did, the film would collapse from angina. As Howard Ratner, a gem dealer in NYC’s Diamond District, Sandler plays a garrulous hustler familiar to fans of Richard Widmark in Night and the City and John Cassavetes’ early seventies work. He’s a liar, unable to keep wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and lover Julia (Julia Fox) satisfied. He owes his brother-in-law money after gambling failures, but he keeps gambling anyway. High-handed, self-pitying, hobbled by a monstrous ego, Howard is among the most repulsive of modern film characters. Unlike Bombshell, Uncut Gems understands how to limn terrible people, thanks to directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time), who find visual correlatives for Howard’s frenzy.
Typical of their approach is a prologue set in Ethiopia, where miners uncover a black opal that like the Maltese Falcon will obsess the protagonists. If the Safdies intend a critique of the exploitation of black labor for the sake of white privilege, as Kanye West and Jay-Z did in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” it’s hard to tell: the glamour of the hustle, its brief flash, attracts them most. A POV shot of the mine’s interior. A blue-orange fade-in (the Safdies love garish color combinations). Now we’re inside the moist canals of human tissue; the camera pulls back, and we see the conclusion of a colonoscopy –Howard’s. Then he’s on his feet, it’s 2012, and he shouts, “I’m walkin’ here” on a bustling Manhattan street like Dustin Hoffman’s semi-confident Ratzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. What making Uncut Gems a tense viewing experience is noting how the film’s meth-fueled pace and the ambiguity with which the Safdies develop Howard’s Jewish and black clientele, not to mention the Safdies’ own attitude toward Howard. Kevin Garnett appears as himself, borrowing the opal for the sake of good luck at the next Celtics game while in exchange Howard bets on their winning. Things inevitably go awry.
Who’s hustling whom and who deserves to get hustled? In the world of Uncut Gems it’s hard to say; the Safdies get off on filming this moral twilight. Only his female characters — vivid but sidelined, including the excellent Julia Fox — are spared. If a viewer less forgiving than I am recoils from Uncut Gems I won’t protest. Daniel Lopatin’s ear-splitting score — orchestral synth washes against white noise — hinders concentration. To claim Uncut Gems manipulates ethnic ferment and domestic drama as if it were white noise or, more accurately, for the sake of creating white noise isn’t a stretch. Every element fits into place. With fake teeth, terrible glasses, hair that looks like it’s growing out of his brain, and a slight stoop, Sandler gives a classic Method performance. What has made him an at best pungent screen presence fuses with Howard’s inability to step away from the spotlight. “I think you’re the most annoying person I have ever met,” a character remarks. While he loves his children, he mistakenly confuses being a breadwinner with satisfying his own bottomless drives. More surface than man, Howard fears shutting up because to be quiet is to forsake life.
This conclusion also describes the Safdie approach. Few of the reviews I’ve read since screening Uncut Gems last month have reckoned with the consequences of the Safdies’ here-take-some-poppers style. Their filmmaking skills, which are considerable, serve an approach to character that trades on sensation, which is regrettable. Film depends on sensation, as the Lumières — brothers themselves — realized a century ago. We know this. Best to approach Uncut Gems, like Good Time, with caution. When ambition meets hysteria, the results fall short of addictive.