Just in time for the holidays, another frantic Safdie Brothers pic from the soft, felonious underbelly of the New York metropolitan area. Uncut Gems, the feverishly paced story of a Diamond District jeweler with an incurable gambling habit, starring Adam Sandler, can be seen as an enlargement of the sporting situations in such previous Sandler vehicles as Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, or The Longest Yard — with the “irony” and “violence” knobs turned all the way up. In another words, the ideal movie to see when we desperately need a break from the forced festivities and tinsel, and all else fails.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is in terrible trouble before the film even starts. The man is wholly, completely devoted to NBA basketball, and cannot, will not, pass up an opportunity to put down a bet on whatever game comes up on his radar that he thinks he can accurately handicap. The key word is “accurately.” Thousands of dollars flow through his fingers like Tic Tacs. Howard is a born sucker, a degenerate gambler, but also, in the curious manner of the other Sandler sports nuts, the slightest bit lovable for it, as if pawning his children’s education or even his beloved 1973 Knicks championship ring to score on a sure thing is a selfless gesture to ensure the continuance of civilization as we know it.
Howard has just received an extremely rare black opal from his contacts in Ethiopia. In his underground KMH Gems shop behind double burglar gates, he can’t wait to show off the mesmerizing stone (shades of The Ring!) to his pal Kevin Garnett, the legendary former Celtics-Nets-Timberwolves power forward (portraying himself), also an admirer of gaudy trinkets. Kevin borrows the opal and walks out of the shop with it. We can’t imagine any other Diamond District merchant letting a customer just borrow a priceless gem, except that in this case Howard holds Kevin’s 2008 Boston Celtics championship ring as collateral. Howard promptly hocks Kevin’s ring to make a play on some proposition or other.
That’s we’re up against here. Filmmaker Josh Safdie from Queens and his younger brother Benny Safdie, sons of Syrian Jewish and Russian Jewish parents, have specialized in portraits of petty criminal life ever since their feature films Heaven Knows What (a 2014 drama about junkies, adapted from Arielle Holmes’ book) and the clumsy-bank-robbers steeplechase Good Time (2017) established them as the go-to guys for action-filled, slapstick portraits of New York street mischief.
With Sandler up front and a screenplay the Safdies wrote with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein, Uncut Gems signifies a step up in class, a frantic tale at the intersection of sports fanaticism, helter-skelter mercantilism, and the ever-present possibility that a guy can get locked in a car trunk naked — or worse — if he falls behind on his vigorish obligations.
Howard is always behind. He spends the entire movie running around one step ahead of a pair of mob leg breakers anxious to squeeze the juice out of him in the most painful ways possible. That leaves him little time for his unhappy wife (Idina Menzel), his kids, his mistress (Julia Fox), his favorite shylock (Eric Bogosian), or the hilariously disconnected Passover Seder with his relatives, let alone his true passion: agonizing over a hoops game on TV that he has $40K invested in. All Howard’s relatives, including Gooey (Judd Hirsch), want to beat him up. Who wouldn’t? Sandler is terrific in this role, a flop-sweat-soaked comedy of brutality punctuated by punches to the face.
Here’s a suggestion: The next time Martin Scorsese wants to demonstrate the difficulty of trying to make a living on the outlaw fringes of urban society, he should subcontract the job out to the Safdies. Not that there’s really too much lacking in, say, the way The Irishman delivers its somber eulogy to a hit man, but let’s face it, the Safdies have the ball now. Uncut Gems has the type of nervous energy and all-important unpredictability that Mean Streets had, 46 years ago. And the same lesson applies: Beware the Disappointed Dunsky.