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In Theaters: UNCUT GEMS (2019)

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UNCUT GEMS
(US - 2019)

Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie. Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh & Benny Safdie. Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, The Weeknd, Mike Francesa, Pom Klementieff, Paloma Elsesser, Keith Williams Richards, Tommy Kominik, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Wayne Diamond, Ca$h Out, Kerwin Frost, Benjy Kleiner, John Amos, Louis Anthony Arias, voices of Tilda Swinton, Natasha Lyonne. (R, 135 mins)

"This is me. This is how I win."

You know UNCUT GEMS is going to be an audacious piece of work when the opening scene begins in an Ethiopian mine with a zoom-in journey inside an uncut opal and eventually emerges from the rectum of the protagonist, who's in the middle of a colonoscopy. That's fast-talking, hard-hustling NYC jeweler Howard Ratner, vividly brought to life by the unlikely Adam Sandler, who was exactly who the Safdie Brothers had in mind when they started writing the script over a decade ago. The filmmaking siblings--elder Josh and younger Benny--only had the little-seen 2009 indie THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED to their credit when they first approached Sandler, but after a few more small films generally seen by no one other than critics and festival audiences, they found some significant acclaim with their 2017 cult breakout GOOD TIME, a gritty '70s-style throwback with a riveting performance by Robert Pattinson. UNCUT GEMS feels like a logical extension of GOOD TIME, like the two films could theoretically exist in the same Safdie Cinematic Universe in the parts of NYC that have remained largely unchanged over the last 30-odd years (you can see the influence of Martin Scorsese, who's also one of the producers). It was probably best that everyone involved waited to make UNCUT GEMS, so the Safdies could get some directing efforts under their belt, hone their skills, and carve their niche, and for 53-year-old Sandler (after turning the Safdies down several times before finally caving when their second choice, Jonah Hill, backed out), who's sporadically tackled dramatic work before with varying degrees of success, to be at the place he needed to be in order to dive into the role of a lifetime.





Say what you will about his dubious history of mostly terrible comedies, but Sandler is a fucking revelation here (and a shout-out to A24 for pulling their most A24 move ever by releasing this wide at Christmas). His Howard Ratner joins the shortlist of cinema's top degenerate gamblers, be they cocky, schmucky, self-destructive, or self-aggrandizing, and always thoroughly doomed, right alongside the likes of James Caan in THE GAMBLER, Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, Edward Norton in ROUNDERS, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in OWNING MAHOWNY. Decked out in flashy clothes, designer eyeglasses, and assorted bling, Howard owns a jewelry store in the NYC diamond district. He's doing well on the surface, but he's drowning in gambling debts all over town, and his ruthless loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) isn't about to cut him any slack just because he's family. Howard's marriage to Arno's sister Dinah (Idina Menzel, or, if you're John Travolta, "Adele Dazeem") is falling apart, due in large part to Howard being a sugar daddy to his much-younger girlfriend and employee Julia (Julia Fox). But things are looking up, as Howard's off-the-books associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) has made the acquaintance of Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself). KG comes into the store to look at some watches, and Howard being Howard, can't resist showing off a rock filled with uncut opals that he had illegally shipped from Ethiopia with the intent of clearing $1 million at a prestigious auction house. In the midst of the 2012 playoffs against against the Philadelphia 76ers, KG is offended that Howard won't sell it to him, but pleads with him to let him hang on to the rock for luck during the semifinals, offering his 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral. Owing Arno $100,000, Howard immediately pawns KG's ring for $20,000, with the intent of using it to place a bet on that night's game and using the earnings to pay off Arno and get KG's ring back with the basketball star being none the wiser.





That's only the beginning of Howard's Murphy's Law-esque miasma of misery and shit luck. It should come as no surprise that anything that could possibly go wrong will, which is what makes a great degenerate gambler movie. But Sandler and the Safdies have a genuine masterpiece on their hands with UNCUT GEMS, a kinetic, captivating, heart-pounding exercise in sustained intensity that many have accurately likened to a 135-minute anxiety attack. The rapid-fire dialogue, the perpetual propulsive throb of the Tangerine Dream-ish synth score by Daniel Lopatin (who also scored GOOD TIME under his alias Oneohtrix Point Never), the grimy old-school NYC mood and energy, and the live-wire performance of a never-better Sandler come together to fashion a film that's like nothing else you've seen in 2019. Whatever Sandler is doing--whether it's bullshitting his way out of a situation, getting into a club brawl with an up-and-coming The Weeknd (remember, this is set in 2012) when he catches Julia doing coke with him in the bathroom, trying to talk his wealthy father-in-law (Judd Hirsch) into jacking up an already large bid at the auction, freaking out when he needs the rock with the opals and both KG and Demany are ignoring his calls--you can't take your eyes off him. You cringe pondering the endless variety of new and innovative ways that Howard--a far-too-confident schmuck with big ideas and an even bigger mouth--can't stop making things exponentially worse for Howard. Shot by the veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji (SE7EN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) and expertly edited by Benny Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein, UNCUT GEMS is a nerve-shredding descent into a hell of Howard's own making that becomes an almost communal experience with a theater audience--you're holding your breath, gasping in shock, and shaking your head in disbelief at the increasingly absurd dilemmas of the hapless Howard Ratner, so much so that the occasional bits of deliberate humor (there's a great joke involving GOOD TIMES star John Amos) serve as very brief moments of relief. Boiling with relentless tension from start to finish, you don't just watch UNCUT GEMS...you survive it. And it's the best American film of 2019.



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