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Synopsis: A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
I recently purchased the Criterion Collection 4K release of this film so this is the watching experience I am going to discuss in this review not the theatrical experience from back in 2019.
This film has cracked into my top four on my Letterboxd profile. Upon my first watch of Uncut Gems I walked out of the theater feeling exhausted and really didn’t think I liked this film, but since then this movie has lived rent free in my brain. I have spent more time thinking about this film then almost any other since 2019, it is really the rosetta stone film that unlocked a specific genre of film that I am incredibly drawn too. The genre of films is best described as uncomfortable, pressure filled films and they get bonus points is for setting them in New York City. The Sadfie Brothers (Benny & Josh) leverage their native New Yorker background and pulled inspiration from stories from their father who worked as a salesman / runner in Manhattan’s Diamond District, and today I revisited the interview with them by Sean Fennessey on The Big Picture and was reminded just how long they worked on this film and that the script went through over 160 iterations as casting changed.
I want to transition to the acting but in order to I think there is one last note that needs to happen with regards to the directors. They are able to get extraordinary performances out of season professional actors and first time actors alike, and I think that is one of the things that make the Safdie Brothers unique and a duo I have added to my short list of I will see anything and everything they do from now on. The entire film is anchored by a performance that really should have taken the Oscar for best actor over Joaquin Phoenix, and it wasn’t even nominated. Adam Sandler is a black hole of despair and sadness in this film, his moments of elation are undercut by severe sadness with the reality of this man’s underlying inability to not cause his own doom and demise. The moment where he hides in his office after getting his nose broken, tossed in a fountain and calls the front of his gem shop to tell everyone to go home he doesn’t want to work is punctuated with is girlfriend entering and his barely comprehensible squawk of, “Don’t look at me, please.”, finally breaking all the way down and crying hiding his face bemoaning, “I am so sad. I am so fucked up! I’m so fucked up.”. Just describing this scene to others brings your reviewer to tears and triggers a deep, empathetic sadness the portrayal of Howard Ratner by Sandler. A total travesty that the Academy didn’t recognize a role and actor that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
There are so many actors that are putting in performances that are meeting and supporting Sandler’s level of intensity and help make this film a fully realized, fleshed out world that you get lost in for 2 hours and 15 minutes. Howard’s wife Dinah is played by Idina Menzel that is barely holding together the household while she awaits for a divorce from Howard. Her screentime is nothing but a pleasure, from watching her size up her broken, sad husband without saying a word to the eviscerating lines when Howard asks for her to reconsider the divorce, “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met. I hate being with you. I hate looking at you. And if I had my way, I would never see you again. Dinah could be a caricature of an angry woman if not handled properly, but the Safdie Brothers and Idina Menzel deftly land us the audience understanding where she is and why she is at the point she has come to with Howard, true frustration and disgust. The other side of the coin from Dinah is his girlfriend Julia De Fiore one of his employees embodied by Julia Fox who we first meet lounging around in bed with a friend trying to placate and get Howard to chill out and join them. The whole time talking about the photos she took of an up and coming performer The Weeknd. This feels like Chekov’s Attractive Younger Man, and really feels like we should put that to the side we will revisit later. Later in the story we find ourselves and all the players at a music venue where The Weeknd is performing and eventually Howard goes looking for Julia in the VIP / afterparty and finds her in a closed room with the artist, and this leads to a complete breakdown from Howard and him screaming at her to get out of his apartment today. In the final act, Julia is there for Howard during the epic breakdown that is described earlier, and she is the only person that is there for the final act in support of our broken protagonist.
Other performances from non-traditional or first time actors need to get shouted out, Kevin Garnett is great playing off of and really allowing Sandler’s affection and love for the NBA to shine through in Howard’s eyes. I think that Garnett knows the part dreamer, part heel, part super athlete that he is playing in this film and really elevates not only the scenes he’s in but the film as a whole. Eric Bogosian is Arno Moradian, Howard’s loan shark and brother-in-law, who has to protect his investment and reputation and this leads to the unfolding of the final act. Bogosian is so great in this role as a calm, subdued character that is frustrated and tired of Howard’s bullshit and that anchors the explosive nature of Arno’s hired toughs, Phil and Nico. Both characters are played by first time actors, Phil is portrayed by Keith William Richards and Nico by Tommy Kominik, I can’t tell you more emphatically that these two gentleman are scary, intimidating and seemly right out of stories I heard in real life growing up in New York City, so are their characters. My dad would have really enjoyed the small but important role of Gary, Howard’s bookie played by Mike Francesa the every present soundtrack of my childhood, blaring out of a radio with my father a devoted Mets fan with WFAN sports talk on 12 hours a day in our home.
Two final performances of note are Howard’s father played by Judd Hirsch that is the center of the extended family scenes but also couldn’t be prouder of Howard based on the stories that Howard is telling him. If Howard the center of this story then the person that is constantly ratcheting up the chaos is Demany played by LaKeith Stanfield as the client wrangler that brings Kevin Garnett into the shop and even though he is definitely Team Demany but he also is trying to leverage his relationship with Howard to his advantage. Everytime I see LaKeith Stanfield in a cast list I am assured that we are in good hands because the casting folks and hopefully the producers and directors have a story to tell and a great actor at the ready to tell it.
In closing I can’t implore you to more to watch or rewatch this film with the best visual and aural experience you can, in interviews the Safdie Brothers acknowledged that there was a 45 page script for ADR sessions at times filled with actors and stories that weren’t even on screen. This adds to the pressure and reality of the world that they have created and we inhabit, and a real tour de force in audio editing and creating one of the most immersive Dolby Atmos experiences I have had in my home. The score created by Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never or OPN is truly a character in the movie, adding to the ominous atmosphere, from the opening discordant note of the film all the way through the final frame of the credits.