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Review: Uncut Gems Cements the Safdie Brothers as the Ultimate “Dirtbag” Auteurs

and bless them for it.

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is the new film from the Safdie brothers starring Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield and NBA basketball star Kevin Garnett.

It tells the story of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a Long Island jeweler with a very intense gambling addiction. He’s trying to find his next big score, spreading himself too thin and facing some dire consequences as a result. He thinks he’s found said score in a giant uncut black opal smuggled to him (in the guts of a fish) from the mines in Ethiopia. The seedy crime thriller turns into a game of “chase the opal” after he lends it to Kevin Garnett and his pal Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Howard is on a dangerous highwire act, not just walking the thin line between success and disaster, but having to keep the various plates he’s juggling (work, family, loan sharks, mistresses) from crashing down until the opal gets on the auction block.

He owes a large amount of money to his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who has thugs tailing him and threatening grievous bodily harm. Garnett doesn’t want to give back the opal because he thinks it is the mystical key to him winning the championship. His wife (Idina Menzel) wants to tell their family about the impending divorce. And his mistress … Well, she just wants to make money and maybe sleep with The Weeknd. Is that so much to ask?

The tension created by the pacing and editing is truly incredible. It feels like a two hour and fifteen minute panic attack – but in the best possible way. Each impulsive decision Howard makes ratchets up the intensity and anxiety for the audience, but is cleverly offset by moments of strategic comedic relief.

The laughter escapes like steam shooting out of a pressure cooker. Even the opening credit sequence, in which you are taken from the kaleidoscopic insides of the black opal into Adam Sandler’s colon (Howard is undergoing a colonoscopy at the beginning of the film) and out the other end. You know the old joke about someone being so tense they could shit diamonds? Well the dang Safdie brothers tell us right from the very beginning that this movie is going to have us… excreting opals.

The cast is stellar. This is Sandler’s best work since Punch Drunk Love. Kevin Garnett is hilarious as himself and has excellent comedic timing. Bogosian and Menzel are both fantastic, though I do wish we got more Menzel time because I love her but I guess I will have to let it go (SORRY NOT SORRY FOR THE FROZEN JOKE). Julia Fox is also incredibly good as the flaky, gold digging girlfriend. But a special shout out must be given to the real break out star of Uncut Gems – Adam Sandler’s top dentures. They are a disgusting, unsettling masterpiece, and they deserve their own award.

Thematically, Uncut Gems is a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction. It really nails home the physical perils of being addicted to gambling, not just for the addict, but their family and co-workers as well. And Howard is in the full throws of it. It is physically painful at times to watch him continue to make the worst, most impulsive decisions. His plans, and lies, grow exponentially more complicated and intricate with each new bet. Eventually he has dug himself a hole that seems impossible to climb out of. Culminating in an ending that, without spoiling it, literally made me scream.

The Safdie Brothers have truly cemented their title as the ultimate Dirtbag Auteurs. From Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie as low-level thug brothers, to Uncut Gems – no one shows the full scope of the humanity of scumbags like the Safdies. Though it’s interesting to note the difference between the two films. In Good Time, the events of the film are driven by Pattinson’s need to protect his mentally disabled brother and keep him out of jail, ultimately sacrificing his own freedom in the process. It’s a film that, despite its seediness, is about the importance of love, family, and loyalty.

Uncut Gems, however, is the opposite side of the dirtbag coin. Howard is loyal only to himself and his addiction. He wants the love and respect of his family and girlfriend but he’s a vacuum, constantly sucking in whatever he can get, and only returning his affections when it furthers his own needs and desires. He’s a ridiculous clown, but the film is constantly reminding the audience that he is an extremely dangerous one. His buffoonery has dire consequences for the people in his immediate proximity. And while this might feel dark and depressing, the whole experience of the film felt almost like an exorcism.

The building panic and tension releasing in a cathartic explosion that left me feeling not just relieved but actually kind of pumped? Maybe that speaks more to my own mental health quirks, but regardless, Uncut Gems is worth a watch.

Uncut Gems hits theaters on Christmas Day.

(Photo: A24)

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