Let’s get the weird stuff out of the way first: Yes, Adam Sandler is winning awards for his performance in “Uncut Gems,” and yes, the acclaim is deserved. You’ll just have to live with it.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jewelry broker whose side hustles are killing him. The hustle is everything with this guy: It’s difficult to see how he actually gets work done.
Howard’s in a disastrous tailspin. Deep in debt over gambling losses, he sees salvation in a chunk of rock, studded with gems, that just arrived in his shop. A prologue, set in an African slave-labor mine, reminds us that these pretty things are born in misery.
If Howard can somehow leverage the potential auction value of the rock to pay off his debts, he’ll be all right. But first he loans the object to NBA star Kevin Garnett — playing himself — who is convinced the rock will give him good luck in the playoffs (the film is set in 2012).
On the personal front, Howard’s wife (Broadway star Idina Menzel, in steely form) holds him in well-deserved contempt, while his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is one of the loan sharks expecting payment.
By the time Howard attends his kids’ school play, it comes as no surprise that he misses most of the show because he tussles with some mob henchmen in the parking lot outside and ends up locked naked in the trunk of his own car. This is Howard.
He’s also got troubles with his mistress, Julia (newcomer Julia Fox, an original presence). Howard gets volcanically jealous when she grows too cozy with The Weeknd (playing himself) at a club. The public meltdown between Howard and Julia is a high point in the movie, or a low point, or perhaps both.
“Uncut Gems” is written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, filmmaking brothers whose previous picture, “Good Time,” was similarly hyper. Their style is to follow Howard through his self-destructive paces and never let up. With the help of Daniel Lopatin’s eccentric musical score and Darius Khondji’s virtuoso camerawork, the Safdies take out your nerve endings and play them like a harp.
One of the great talents of the Safdies is to show you New York from the inside. With their films you always feel like you’re getting the worm’s-eye view, an underground tour of where stuff actually happens — whether you want to see it or not. (Martin Scorsese is one of the film’s executive producers, as though to validate the visit to these mean streets.)
I can’t quite shake the feeling that the brothers wallow a little too happily in the muck, but they’ve got a splendidly self-deluded protagonist to usher us through the nightmare. Sandler is walking in the footsteps of other desperate hustlers from movie history, and if he doesn’t have the nervy range of someone like Richard Widmark in “Night and the City,” he brings his own sweaty hostility to the role.
Sandler is especially good at showing Howard’s manchild tendencies, suggesting he has never passed the emotional level of a 14-year-old. Even back in his “Saturday Night Live” days, Sandler could shift into full fury at a moment’s notice, to comic effect.
And “Uncut Gems” is a comedy, even with its harrowing style. There’s a kind of … almost … sort of a happy ending, too, if you’re on the Safdies’ dark wavelength. And if you’ve survived the film’s 135 minutes, you probably will be.
“Uncut Gems” (3½ stars)
Adam Sandler is in splendidly desperate form in the black comedy about a New York jeweler attempting a very long shot to get out from under some gambling debts. Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie keep their manchild protagonist in constant peril, to nerve-jangling (and yet comic, somehow) effect.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall
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