This year’s films saved the best for last: “Uncut Gems” is one of those gritty character dramas that suck you into its world of addiction and the desperate hustle for one big score.
The movie centers on Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a Manhattan jeweler who’s just spent $100,000 to secretly purchase an uncut black opal to sell at auction. The profits from the auction will bail Howard out of the hole he’s dug himself as a compulsive gambler who owes a lot of money to thugs like Arno (Eric Bogosian). The money will also go a long way to support the expense of renting a city apartment for his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) while keeping his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and two sons comfortable in the suburban life they’re accustomed.
Using his store to privately sell to celebrities, Howard makes the mistake of showing the opal to NBA star Kevin Garnett (as himself). Garnett feels the opal will bring him luck in the NBA finals and asks to borrow the opal for one night. In exchange for Garnett’s Celtics championship ring as collateral, Howard agrees. Howard soon pawns the ring for cash to place bets and Arno, hearing of the money he’s owed being gambled, looks for Howard.
Howard’s bad luck turns worse when Garnett, playing a career game while in possession of the opal, wants to keep it. Without the opal for auction and Arno watching Howard’s gambling to reclaim his money, Howard’s stuck seeking the financial windfall that will free him. With the wolves at the door, the time bomb for Howard to try to make things right begins ticking.
I’ve always been a fan of movies like this, watching an addict try to keep everything under control- it’s like seeing the guy spin the plates on those little rods while trying to roll a joint. These movies are also an actor’s showcase and Sandler, playing against type, does an excellent job. Though the script had been written years ago for Harvey Keitel (who, to me, gave his best performance in a similarly parallel story to “Gems” in Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant”), directors Benny and Josh Safdie wanted someone younger and pursued Sandler. While his comedic persona may have been used to make Howard’s character more sympathetic, just Sandler’s living in New York for so many years (NYU, SNL) gives an authenticity to Howard’s harried vibe. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, “Uncut Gems” is a movie that feels raw and real. For fans of John Cassavetes films, the Safdie brothers are probably as close as you’ll come to resurrecting that directing style of scripted material that feels like cinema verite. Seeing dramas this engrossing are as rare as the opal at the center of its story- it’s worth your time to see why “Uncut Gems” shines.