The concept of the anti-hero is always something that makes the audience question their own morality. What does it say about us when we’re rooting for Bonnie & Clyde, Walter White, or Tony Soprano to succeed in their misdeeds? Of course, usually anti-heroes have at least shreds of redeeming qualities, something that can’t be said of the protagonist at the center of Uncut Gems.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a jewelry shop owner in New York who caters to high-end clients like NBA star Kevin Garnett. He’s also brash, confrontational, and a degenerate gambler who owes money all over town. He has a beautiful wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), so naturally he’s carrying on an affair with one of the workers at his shop, Julia (Julia Fox).
Howard has struck a shady deal for a raw opal from Africa that he hopes will land him big money in an auction, one in a series of high-stakes gambles that few others would take. But when Garnett takes a shine to the opal and borrows it for good luck during the playoffs, it sets off a chain of events where Howard keeps risking more and more to ensure he gets the win.
Whether you find this movie pleasurable to watch will depend on your tolerance for chaos. Written and directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, the movie starts off with the pedal to the metal and never lets up. The preferred method of communication for Howard is profane yelling, and since he’s in virtually every frame of the movie, that's what we get for the entire 135-minute running time.
Given that he has a steady stream of clients and has managed to convince not one but two beautiful women to have sex with him, Howard would seem to be a charismatic man. But that charisma is rarely on display in the film, where he chiefly comes off as out-of-control and unconvincing. It’s unclear why anyone would want to be around this guy, much less do business or have an affair with him.
The entire story is full of similar insanity. Howard’s brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) uses goons to try to get Howard to pay a debt, although said goons are hit-and-miss with their enforcement techniques. Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), a go-between who procures clients like Garnett for a fee, gives the run-around to Howard, seemingly the only person willing to call him on his demeanor.
The Safdie brothers have set the movie in 2012 seemingly just to fit Garnett into the story, and the time period and city in which it takes place bring up a few unanswerable questions. The biggest one is why Garnett, who’s shown playing for the Boston Celtics against the Philadelphia 76ers, makes multiple visits to New York during the playoff series. Even given his attachment to the gem and the relative proximity of Boston and Philadelphia, it seems a step too far to visit Howard on more than one occasion.
This is a rare chance for Sandler, who’s known for his goofy comedies, to show some dramatic chops, and he’s certainly made some interesting choices. The character is irritating as hell, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to good acting. Stanfield is much better, showing yet another side of his talent and bolstering his already-stacked résumé. Garnett is pretty good in his first film role, although it’s not exactly a stretch to play himself.
The Safdie brothers are out to make viewers into balls of stress when watching Uncut Gems, and there’s an argument to be made that their success in doing so makes it great filmmaking. Far be it from me to say that’s wrong, but I’ll pass on another experience like this one.