The Safdie Brothers allow Adam Sandler to cut loose amidst a cacophony of chaos
trav·es·ty | \ ˈtra-və-stē
Definition of travesty
1 : a debased, distorted, or grossly inferior imitation a travesty of justice
2 : a burlesque translation or literary or artistic imitation usually grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment, or subject matter
3 : the lack of any Academy Award nominations for Uncut Gems and its star Adam Sandler
Uncut Gems is a rickety rollercoaster of a film. A breathless rush of adrenaline that feels like it could career off the tracks at any moment. The danger stems from Howard Ratner (Sandler), a jewellery store owner/wheeler-dealer out of Manhattan. His life and income is entangled with local mobsters, pawn brokers, bookies, and other dubious types. One of these is Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a colleague who uses his connections in the music and sports worlds to bring stars into Howard’s store in return for a cut of the sales. An arranged visit from NBA star Kevin Garnett (played by himself) coincides with the delivery of an illegally imported rare black opal from Ethiopia. Howard’s plans for his big score, and paying off some looming debts, rest on selling this item at auction. Garnett’s affinity for the gem prompts a request to borrow the stone, something that emboldens his play. His ensuing failure to return it throws a wrench in Howard’s plans. The house of cards built on his debt and gambling starts to teeter, further threatened by complications in his personal life.
The Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, together with writer Ronald Bronstein, put together an enthralling script immersing us in the pyramid scheme that is Howard’s life. A man making bets, leveraging his position, one resource or piece of income is immediately rolled into another bet or scheme, even if it isn’t his or even in his possession. He lives his life fending off friends, foes, and family who all are looking to get their money back, while further feeding his addiction. It’s a compulsion that drives him on, a rush from beating the odds. Despite thriving from teetering on the edge, this big deal threatens to push him over as he owes big time to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), who has employed some blunt force heavies to call in his debt. His personal life is no less complex, with his marriage to wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) broken down with divorce plans on the horizon, an estrangement from his two kids, and a ongoing love affair with Julia (Julia Fox), an employee he has set up in a downtown apartment. Exposing these compulsions makes for a dark character study, albeit one infused with a manic energy and bursts of comedy. The film swirls around Sandler who, as an actor I tend to revile more than respect, drops the performance of the year. Abrasive, self-absorbed, destructive, relentless, Howard’s showmanship and persistence is disorientating, meeting challenges with incessant chatter and self-belief, even in the face of failure, or being punched in the throat. Just mesmerizing work from Sandler.
The Safdies and their cinematographer Darius Khondji put their lead in a world that is infused with a tangible level of grit and grime, paired with flair and flex. An opening sequence pays tribute to Indiana Jones, before a mythical journey through a colon feels like a segue into 2001: A Space Odyssey. After this the film barrels along, a maddening noise and energy reflecting the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. The sound design feeds into this cacophony of chaos, while a percussive score from Daniel Lopatin helps set a persistent rhythm, set to the beat of Howard’s neuroses, successes, and failures. Uncut Gems is consistently tense and thrilling; indeed the only thing that impresses more than the sustained discomfort is how exquisitely well crafted it is.
Like the film itself, the visuals of Uncut Gems are dense, rich, and textured. The presentation shows this all off, with deep, deep blacks, a palette that pops from cool blues to some of the gaudier tones, all with a nice thick layer of grain. The constant, uneasy movement of camera and players does not show up any issues or artifacts. A very nice transfer indeed.
Extra features are sadly limited to a ‘making of’ featurette entitled Money on the Street. Basically 30 minutes of interviews with various cast/crew members, it’s got some insightful and frank comments, and certainly worth attention. But, if a film was crying out for an audio commentary, it’s this one. A digital download code is also included.
The Bottom Line
Adam Sandler turns in a tour de force amidst a cacophony of chaos. The Safdie Brothers excel in building this precarious house of cards and in imbuing tension and texture into this morally gray tale. The fact that it was overlooked at the Academy Awards was criminal. Don’t make the same mistake by missing out on one of the best films of 2019.
Uncut Gems is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital now.