Uncut Gems (2019)

Dir. the Safdie Brothers, who I will start to refer to by their Christian names when they get separate Twitter accounts. Starring Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett

Spoilers because this is still in theaters. I am so tired of leading off with spoilers. I have got to start writing about stuff from the ’40s again.

Every time someone talks about how anxious Uncut Gems made them, I ask myself a question: “When was the last time this person watched a movie at home without looking at his or her phone?” If you’re used to needing the sort of instantaneous stimulation that the Safdies provide over two-plus hours, and in your regular life you get it from checking Instagram or playing Candy Crush or being mad online or whatever, then this is going to feel stressful. There’s not an obvious (and by “obvious” I mean “no dialogue”) place where you can check your phone in Uncut Gems, and I think that’s an accomplishment. That’s true about The Rise of Skywalker as well, a movie I thought was stupid with two zeros, so I cannot think of a more backhanded compliment. For as much as we as a people are dominated by social media, there are still so few movies that seriously consider what that means. For every Eighth Grade (now there’s a movie about anxiety!), which I think understands the way people interact with the interwebs almost profoundly, there are more movies like Ingrid Goes West, which look at social media in the most shallow ways possible and pretend they’ve uncovered something interesting. Uncut Gems sits in a third category of social media movies, not because it has much to say at all about our devices or our Facebooks, but because it’s like Nicorette gum for the addicts in the theater who know they can’t light up their smokes without getting scolded.

Here’s the thing that gets me about Uncut Gems. There’s too much stuff happening for us to genuinely be nervous about what will happen. If all of it matters as much as the movie wants it to matter, then it’s sort of like saying your amps go up to 11. Eighth Grade is a tremendously anxious movie because it’s really focused on one thing. Kayla is obsessed with becoming more popular than she is, and we’re anxious for her because she is really bad at making friends and getting noticed for good reasons. There’s nothing to distract us from it, which is why everything in that movie, from the pool party to her bad experience in the back seat with an older boy to her one-sided relationship with her dad, makes us so tense. On the other hand, Uncut Gems revels in how much of it there is, how much sound and dialogue ricocheting off of each other, how much action can fit in each of Darius Khondji’s shots, and of course how aggressively self-conscious those shots are. Extreme close-ups galore. A bizarre transition from the inside of opals to the inside of Howard Ratner’s (Sandler) colon, which I guess would be interesting if it didn’t look like we had to wade through Tron to get there. I would pay a dollar to know how many miles the cameras on this production moved in total during the shoot. The impulse the Safdies have to make their picture a technical playground is inseparable, I would imagine, from their impulses to turducken the stories they tell.

There’s a lot of plot here, too. Howard is keeping one of his employees, Julia (Fox), in an apartment in the city; he has a wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel) and kids, and Dinah has a timer on their marriage. Howard has received an uncut black opal from Ethiopia, makes the mistake of showing it to Kevin Garnett (himself, glad to see the maniac doing well), and spends a significant amount of the picture trying to get the gems back from Garnett so he can then sell it at auction. Howard spends a lot of this subplot yelling at Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who helps get people into the jewelry store and who introduced KG to Howard. He is desperate to sell because he is mired in serious gambling debts and cannot stop taking on new, increasingly complicated bets. He owes real money to his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who torments him with a heavy heart. Mike Francesa is here as the local bookie, and though Francesa is like, way better at this than I expected him to be, he’s also as distracting as The Weeknd is. I don’t think I mentioned that he’s got a couple scenes in there, mostly opposite Fox, but like, it doesn’t matter that it’s him any more than it mattered that Young MC has a cameo in Up in the Air. (The Weeknd does demand black light for his performance, which is very Safdies. Wouldn’t be a Safdies movie without shoehorning some neon color in there to unnecessarily highlight major characters, like they’re locked in battle with Nicolas Winding Refn.) Give the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein, their co-writer, some credit, because this is never confusing no matter how much is happening. Dock them some points because they don’t appear to be masterful at self-editing. This is a significantly better movie if Kevin Garnett doesn’t appear in it, and I say this, again, having enjoyed Garnett’s performance. The movie needs Garnett to take the opal away from Howard and to be the center of Howard’s parlays. Garnett did the latter back in 2012, and there must be a thousand ways to get the opal out of Howard’s grasp without needing Kevin Garnett to be involved whatsoever. After all, when the movie runs through its climactic bet and Howard wins over a million bucks, he has the opal. He’s had the opal for twenty minutes of movie, maybe more. When the trumpets blew, Kevin Garnett and the Great Opal Run-Around of 2012 never really mattered. Julia mattered. Arno mattered. But Kevin Garnett didn’t, and we spent so much time on something that I wonder if the filmmakers even knew was a red herring.

Credit goes to the writers for a story which is always clear, but more attention has to be paid to a really outstanding cast. Julia Fox was really great in a part which I did not expect to have much resonance. At first she seems like a great bod and a whiny voice, but then there are all these little moments that make it clear that she’s into whatever Howard’s giving her, that she has preferences and propriety of her own. She feeds off the adrenaline rush enough to leave the apartment where he’s keeping her by the deadline he gave her, to get his name tattooed on her butt. (If Adam Sandler wins an Oscar for this, which I don’t think will happen but I wouldn’t be mad about if it did, it’s going to have to be for the way he breaks down when he sees that little tattoo and cries, I don’t deserve it!) Idina Menzel gets this wonderfully frosty part, all nasty looks and ball-cutting sarcasm, unseen in her oeuvre since…Chess in concert opposite Josh Groban? Eric Bogosian has such a capacity for woe in his face, and he’s the real anchor of the last half-hour of the movie. While Howard’s got Arno locked in his vestibule, Arno is resigned almost from the first, all his anger and frustration with his idiot brother-in-law internalized and leaving only a sullen exasperation on the outside. And Sandler, of course, is great. He’s at his best when his voice is on the verge of a quiet lisp, although for so much of the movie he’s screaming and pleading and all that other loud stuff. He’s great when he’s playacting the contrite husband against Menzel, asking her to look in his eyes to see how much he cares about her. It’s so canned, and Howard knows it’s canned, and Sandler definitely knows it’s canned, and so Sandler gives us Howard’s cornball tryhard attempt with so much sincerity. His best moment, though, is late in the movie. Once Howard’s got Arno and his heavies locked in his vestibule and $165,000 locked in at the book, he has so much power, more power than he has had throughout the rest of the movie combined. One of Arno’s guys, Phil (Keith Williams Richards), asks Howard if he’s enjoying this. And then this dumb, slightly goofy, very thin smile breaks out on Howard’s face. “Yes.”

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