Let’s start with the setting in my theater at the Alamo Drafthouse. I was sandwiched between two groups of females who were having a night out. On my right were […]
Let’s start with the setting in my theater at the Alamo Drafthouse.
I was sandwiched between two groups of females who were having a night out. On my right were two ladies who were obvious friends and they were excited to see the movie. The pair were talking about the Oscar Nominations and honestly, I just wanted to befriend them. Then to my left were four ladies who were probably in their late thirties or early forties. They entered the theater with their cellphone flashlights all on, sat down, and disobeyed the rules. They didn’t write down the orders and they were more talkative then a pack of hyenas surrounding prey. I also heard the women next to me ask: “Who is in this, and what’s it about?”
Folks, Uncut Gems is not a movie to attend without having some sort of idea of what it’s about. Even if you have some sense of an idea, this Safdie brothers still take you on a crazy ride filled with potholes, detours, speed bumps accelerator pads and sudden brick dead ends. The story of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) and his heart-attack inducing lifestyle is one of the most unique and truly exhilarating movies of this year’s award season.
Right off the get-go, the most impressive thing about Uncut Gems is the frenetic mood it sets. There are multiple variables that make the formula work so well, including but not limited to Adam Sandler giving a unreal performance, the realistic depiction of gambling and its addictive quality, and the wonderful sound mixing that muddles the mind.
Let’s talk Sandler and his portrayal of Howard Ratner. I don’t know if anyone has said “Sorry” more times in a movie, but his portrayal of this gambling addict is addicting on its own. Howard’s energy, actions and sometimes demented mindset make him a very complicated leading figure. Sandler throws all the good and bad into a melting pot and the result is a stew that doesn’t look the best but keeps bringing you back. The constant dishevelment he plays so well is emblematic of the character who is constantly hopping on sinking lily pads trying to reach the shore before the current pulls him away.
The final scene of the movie is the biggest leap that Howard takes, and it’s when the tension of Uncut Gems reaches its fever pitch. Howard is trying to juggle a relationship he has ended while fending off debt collectors coming to get their due, all after a failed auction which was supposed to be his big pay day. Naturally when he is at his lowest, Howard receives news that give him a second wind.
Imagine you are gambling on the one o’clock football games and go down big. You throw a Hail Mary on just one of the four o’clock games and hit big. That second wind fills you with confidence, and you decide to go double or nothing on the primetime game rather than taking what good fortune has given you. That is what Howard does in Uncut Gems.
With his enemies literally trapped in a glass box next to him, Howard puts all his chips in on the table to try and get the biggest payday possible. The entire sequence is anxious as hell. Even if you don’t know gambling, basketball or anything about odds, the scene is still goosebump inducing. This was literally exemplified by the two ladies who were watching the movie to my right at the Alamo; at the end of the movie I heard them talking about how they still enjoyed it despite not knowing the Celtics or understanding what a parlay truly is.
Sandler is slamming the television screen, constantly taunting his enemies and screaming at the game as if the Celtics and Kevin Garnett can hear him. He is on the ultimate high, getting the ultimate rush. Howard is living out the best moment of his life. It’s a sprint at the finish to the checkered flag with a heavy briefcase of cash just out of reach.
While Sandler is no doubt the star of Uncut Gems, there are a pair of breakout stars. Julia Fox and Kevin Garnett are stellar in their first roles ever in a major motion picture. Each brought their own intensity to the story, accenting the arc of Howard in an impactful way.
Fox plays Howard’s muse, Julia. She stays in an apartment that he pays for and lives vicariously through the events of and emotions that her lover experiences. In all honesty, she is the perfect cast to play the sexy side piece for Howard. She is beautiful, but she has a blend of confidence and naivety that both excite and irritate Howard. Fox is the breakout star of Uncut Gems.
The only reason that Kevin Garnett isn’t the breakout star is because people know of him already. But even with, the man molds to the silver screen beautifully. Garnett takes to the pace and natural vibe of Uncut Gems incredibly well, and I think credit must be given to the whole entire cast and writers for setting himself up for success. The commotion around Garnett whenever he is in a scene is organic. The talk, and over-talking, is exactly like trying to have a conversation in a constantly busy place. It all seems ad-libbed to a point, allowing Garnett to chime in a be his competitive self.
There were lots of players attached to that players part of the script, notably Amar’e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant and Joel Embiid. What Garnett brings to this part is an intangible…craziness. For lack of a better word. His obsessive gaze toward the gems is scary. That intensity is all KG. It’s magnetic and the Safdie brothers lucked out with the timing and bringing him onto the project.
On a more technical aspect, it’s impossible to watch Uncut Gems and not be impressed with the sound mixing. There is constant over-talking and interrupting between the characters but somehow it’s all understandable and digestible. In the crowded spaces of the club or the jewelry store, all talkers are at equal volume and that’s a powerful overwhelming sense. If you watch enough movies you see that whenever an intense conversation is happening in a public place, the rest of the environment seems to die down in volume. That’s not the case in Uncut Gems. It’s all loud, it’s all boisterous.
The appreciation of this approach to sound and best combined with visuals during the The Weeknd concert sequence. Howard is trying to get his precious material back from Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) but is disappointed once again. Then the there is a second act within that club setting that pins Howard and Julia against one another. There is claustrophobia up the wazoo and the Weeknd won’t preform until he get his black lights. Finally they come on, and the neon colors that pop on certain characters act like glowsticks in a funnel of bodies. It just looks fantastic and is the first time I’ve seen that lighting called out and used like that in a movie.
The only parts of Uncut Gems that dragged down experience were some scenes involving Howard’s wife Dinah, played by Idina Menzel. She plays an important role in the story as a grounded base of reality and what-was for Howard, but some of the conversation act like quicksand to the pace of the movie. Menzel’s acting isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the same freneticism as Sandler when they share the screen together. The best interaction between the two was when Dinah went to go get Howard out of the trunk of their car after his interaction with the debt collectors; no words were spoken but the resentment was palpable. The scene, which was promoted most, was when Dinah had on her old prom dress and Howard is asking for a second chance. While the dialogue had some smirk-inducing lines, this sequence also highlighted the different pedestal Sandler is on compared to everyone else. Menzel is not bad by any means, but she isn’t one the same stratosphere as the star.
Going back to the setting in which I personally saw this movie, the four ladies to my left did not enjoy Uncut Gems. At the end of the movie, two of them said “Can’t get that two hours back.” This is a sentiment that I can understand, but whole heartedly disagree with. Uncut Gems is not for everyone. It is distinctive, chaotic and not easy to watch at times. It doesn’t give the audience the answers, instead giving only morsels to follow like breadcrumbs. There is no expository voiceover explaining what a parlay is. And that is what makes it great.
Uncut Gems is meant to leave you disorientated. It is supposed to feel like when a car passes through a puddle and drenches you on the sidewalk. The key is to let that happen. Embrace the chaos. Embrace the tempo. Let Sandler and the entire experience steer the ship and you will be amazed once you reach the final destination.
STANKO RATING: A-