Brett E. Niethamer - 8/31/2020
So what happens when Adam Sandler decides to do a dramatic role? Is he any good? Can he even handle being serious? Well the good news is that the answer to both of those questions is “YES”. Uncut Gems is the newest film by the Safdie Brothers, the guys who gave us Good Time, which showed the world that Robert Pattinson doesn’t have to sparkle. Well, I think they have hit it out of the park yet again.
Adam Sandler buckles down and really tries here. He plays jeweler Howard Ratner. And if that last name doesn’t tell you what kind of person Howard is, then he actions certainly do. Howard is a jeweler with an expensive hobby: gambling. In fact, he owes his own brother-in-law, Arno, thousands of dollars. And he isn’t exactly the most reliable when it comes to paying someone back. Howard is waiting with bated breath for his cut of a black opal, a vey rare gem that he hopes will get him out of his financial worries. But he makes the mistake of lending it to basketball player, Kevin Garnett, in order to look cool. Well, now Howard needs to make a mad dash to get his precious gem back so he can sell it at auction to pay back Arno.
Yes, Arno and his goons are a driving force within the film, but a lot of Howard’s problems here come from his own personality. He is a showboat and cannot go a single moment whiteout letting people know about the cool merchandise he has. He has the one and only Kevin Garnett in his shop constantly, and he can’t go a moment without trying to show off his newest gem or item. This need to show off gets Howard in trouble right from the very beginning, as showboating keeps him from paying attention to Kevin leaning on the glass counter, resulting in its shattering. This scene perfectly captures the theme of the film: Howard cannot stop to take something seriously, he constantly needs to be showing off.
As one might imagine, this personality quirk of owing people money, but being more invested in appearing well-off, gets Howard in quite a bit of trouble. Arno has sent Phil to collect, and Phil is tired of Howard constantly dodging the responsibility and disrespecting both Arno and himself. Meanwhile, Howard also has to deal with his failing marriage, and his mistress’ bad habits of drugs and flirting. At one point, Howard is convinced that his mistress, Julia, is cheating on him in a club. Ironic, since he himself is cheating on his wife. But it’s okay for him to do it. Just not anyone else.
Howard is an extremely jealous man and unless he feels 100% secure in something, he will quickly find a new avenue to pursue. Which is why after having the fight with Julia, he goes back to his wife, Dinah, and pleads with her to take him back. This scene is my favorite in the film and can teach you a lot about filmmaking. Watch how Howard enters the scene. He is the largest in the frame. He is in control. His wife may be smaller in the frame, but she is what is in focus. Howard is here, he is in command, and he has his sights set on winning her back. But things do not go as planned. Now watch how Howard exits the scene. We start on a shot of his wife laughing. She is large in the frame, now she is in control. Other family members have entered the room too, meaning we are looking at Howard through a crowd of people. He is no longer the dominant thing in frame, he is now being pushed out. And as he leaves through the group of people, he gets smaller and smaller until he disappears out of sight.
Now, you can probably guess that a shady man like Howard who takes advantage of others and shirks his responsibilities might not have a happy ending, and you would be right. Howard wins big with his gamble, enough to pay everyone off and then some. But it’s too late. He has already disrespected Phil too many times.
Phil straight up murders Howard. Arno too. Howard has upset this man so much, that he is not only fed up with Howard, but Arno too for simply putting up with him. Howard’s constant belief that he would end up on top gets him killed. The gem he fought so hard to get back from Kevin, remains with Kevin. And Phil gets not only everything in his store, but you can be rest assured, he will go after Julia for that extra cash as well. No one is safe in this film. Nearly everyone loses in some way. And if Howard had simply conducted business as a responsible adult, then everyone would have won.
I do have a few tiny issues with the film. I think it would have been nice to have Arno realize Phil is starting to go too far just one more time, so that when he turns on Arno it feels a little more earned. I also felt that there were a few moments where the music didn’t quite fit the scene, or felt too close to other synth scores like A Clockwork Orange, or Under the Skin. But neither of these are issues large enough to really affect my viewing of the film too much.
I really enjoyed Uncut Gems. Or, maybe “enjoyed” is the wrong word. This is a very intense film. It’s not exactly something you watch for fun. These characters are despicable and they get what’s coming to them. It’s a cautionary tale. This is a very well crafted film; from the directing and cinematography, to the acting and writing. I would highly recommend it. Just know what you’re getting into.