Uncut Gems

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Seen as part of the London Film Festival, general release currently TBC.

The Wolf of Wall Street currently stands as the record holder for most “fucks” said in a film. 506 times Martin Scorsese’s animalistic protagonists yell it out, with Casino and Goodfellas not far behind on that list. It’s apt then that he should be executive producer of Uncut Gems, the new hyper tense hyper manic flick from Good Time directors Benny & Josh Safdie, blessed as it is with a veritable smorgasbord of uncouth language. Most of it coming from the mouth of Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner. A figure very much in the Scorsese mould, over confident, over masculine and over his head. Your adoration of this film will vary wildly depending on if 2 hrs plus of constant yelling, swearing and aggression can be tolerated.

Uncut Gems is set in New York, the Scorsese references continue, albeit a New York that feels fresher on the screen than we’ve seen before. Largely set on the streets of downtown NYC, The Safdie’s whirling camerawork putting us right there with Howard with an almost documentary like tangibility. Howard is a down and dirty jewelry store owner, catering predominately to the rich and famous. Tokens given by said celebrities adorn every part of Howard’s life, from the clothes he wears to the random memorabilia he hawks about in his store. We get a sense that this is what Howard loves most, being part of the upper elite and lording those power players he meets as if they’re his actual friends. We first meet him right in the middle of an intrusive colonoscopy, a smart yet graphic way to show how under attack Howard is at every moment. No part of him is safe as he flies around town cursing those in his way. The Safdie’s, who also write here, keep things fairly simple plot wise. A rare uncut gem has landed in Howard’s possession, one he believes is worth a sizeable amount, and one he shows off to new celebrity ‘friend’ basketballer Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Garnett though is hypnotised by the gem, believing it to hold some sort of power over his game, and asks to borrow it. Howard, the people pleaser that he is, concedes only if it’s back the next day. Sure enough it isn’t returned and so begins a madcap jaunt across the streets to get it back.

Plot wise that’s pretty much all you get, yet what works here is the world The Safdies create around Howard. We meet brutish gangsters, dodgy bookies and spend time with Howard’s extended family. Each flush with garish energetic personalities, from his seething wife played by Idina Menzel, to his loyal headstrong girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), to an always welcome Judd Hirsch as the Jewish patriarch. It gives this world such colour and vibrancy that you enjoy just spending time within it. But with one caveat, they’re all equally as obnoxious as Howard. Content to routinely shout over one another, and comfortable with hurting each other either via physical violence or emotional barrages. It doesn’t always make for the most easiest of viewings.

King among them though is Howard Ratner. A fascinating character. He is constantly on the move. Constantly trading one thing for another, one favour for another. All in the purposes of winning big. You see Howard is the quintessential gambler. Addicted to the thrill of the chase regardless of who loses, usually himself. He plays people so beautifully and Sandler dazzles in the role. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of his, never understanding just why he had such a massive comedy following. An often dry performer capable of a monotone that is off putting. In dramatic roles, however, he can surprise. Punch Drunk Love a strong case as to how much he can do with subtlety and silence. Howard is the opposite though. Salty in language and behaviour. There is a good man underneath it all, tiny interactions with his father and Julia show that, but he hasn’t got enough time for all that unnecessary humanity. He’s too busy working on that next fix.

Sandler plays this all so wonderfully. You cannot take his eyes off him, a fact certainly helped by The Safdie Brothers never leaving his side. But the manic intensity he brings adds so much to the tension that already courses through the film like a simmering saucepan of aggression, ready to boil over with a sea of “fucks!” There is a deftness to his performance, a high wire act of tonal balance backed up by The Safdie’s witty script. A moment towards the back end of the film when all this running about begins to overwhelm him manages to be both desperately sad (Sandler can do both weaselly and sympathetic quite well) and surprisingly funny. I haven’t seen their previous films but the confidence and brazen energy they display here is surely what lured Scorsese to their table.

They clearly like people to suffer as Howard routinely gets beaten down largely owing to his own false machismo. Unlike the leads of Scorsese’s pictures, here the hyper masculinity is undercut by simply having the shit kicked out of him. Routinely Howard mouths off with the idea of physical violence yet he is too cowardly to deliver, whereas Scorsese’s men tended to use violence as a way to mask inadequacy. All never let their leads off the hook and both make you root for people largely not deserving of such fanfare.

Uncut Gems moves with an urgency benefiting its lead character. At over 2 hrs it does feel long but never drags. You’re never far away from an unpredictable moment or whip smart comedic interaction. Visuals bounce off the screen aided by a throbbing synthesised score courtesy of Daniel Lopatin. Even if at times the noise of it reaches deafening levels. All designed to keep the audience at an elevated heart rate. Few films can maintain such a level of tension, but this one does and then some. The final act is especially nerve wracking, building to a moment of shocking if inevitable violence. What does surprise is the surreality that frequently permeates through it. The film opening on the discovery of the title gem with the camera zooming in microscopically as if there was some mystical ancient power buried within. One that hypnotises some (Garnett for example) and curses others (Howard’s bad luck can’t be all his fault, right?) Other moments are less successful; a cameo from The Weekend stands out as being particularly odd. Yet through it all The Safdies keep a remarkable constant control. This is their world, we’re just visiting.

Not all will chime with its particular rhythms. It very much feels like one of those films that you’re glad you’ve seen but would find hard to visit again. Howard is too frustrating an individual to keep close to, his love of cussing and shouting becoming incessant rather than exciting. His repeated self-destruction exacerbating rather than thrilling. Yet I’ve found myself stuck reliving moments of the film repeatedly since I saw it. 500 fucks may get your name in the door but Uncut Gems proceeds to kick the door down and break it into dust.

Verdict: The incessant yelling can be exhausting but The Safdie Brothers wrap Uncut Gems in a never ending ball of tightening sweat draped in considerable visual panache. Adam Sandler has never been better as a helluva self destructive man.

****

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