Howard Ratner is an asshole. He’s an asshole to his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel). He’s an asshole to his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox). He’s an asshole to his kids (who he, and we, hardly ever see). He’s an asshole to his employees, including Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), as he sells diamond-encrusted baubles out of a cramped showroom in Manhattan’s Diamond District. He’s asshole to regular people, like receptionists and bouncers, and he’s an asshole to famous people, like Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett) and the Weeknd (the Weeknd). And he’s especially an asshole to anyone to whom he owes money—which is a lot of people, chief among them being Arno (Eric Bogosian). And since Arno’s also related to Howard, he really gets treated like shit.
It’s not a coincidence that the first images we see of Howard are obtained from a colonoscopy, but even when the camera leaves Howard’s posterior to capture his exterior—he’s played, and played remarkably, by the version of Adam Sandler who’s an amazing actor in good movies—there’s still something that feels shitty about the guy. Howard never stops wheeling and dealing, and in the hours we spend with him, he says maybe two or three things that are true. The rest of the time, he says whatever gets him what he needs: To get paid, to get laid, to get let out of the trunk of his car, where Arno’s thugs have locked him after smacking him around and stripping him naked.
Sandler rarely leaves the screen in Uncut Gems, and the plot is basically Howard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. That isn’t a shock, considering the film comes from brothers/writers/directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who party-crashed the arthouse scene with 2017’s Good Time (in which Robert Pattinson was the one playing an asshole having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day). Uncut Gems is larger in scope, but like Good Time, it has a moral vacuum at its center—it takes place in the no-man’s-land where society’s walls crumble, and where those who look out only for themselves can best navigate the rubble. The Safdies aren’t interested in morality tales but amorality tales, and their stories’ no-holds-barred recklessness, at first freeing, steadily grows exhausting.
Thankfully, the Safdies also know how to shoot, cut, and score like nobody else—a sentiment presumably shared by Martin Scorsese, who serves as one of Uncut Gems’ executive producers. (Does this mean Adam Sandler movies count as cinema?) There’s a twitchy, addictive energy to Uncut Gems, and their choppy, rapid-fire cuts coalesce into a surreal, exhilarating landscape of prismatic hues, blaring fluorescents, and sharp LEDs, all while the analog synth score by Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) adds to the lurid beauty. Like Good Time, the simultaneously sprawling and catastrophic Uncut Gems actually feels like the parts of New York where the tourists don’t go—where long blocks are kludged together with gleaming glass and filthy brick and relentless hustle.
But while Good Time ostensibly centered around a fractured fraternal bond, Uncut Gems has no such ties: Howard always feels alone as he bounces from misadventure to misadventure—from fights with Dinah to fights with Julia, from making threats to getting threatened (and sucker punched). He’s a guy playing dangerous games that he’s almost smart enough to win, and for the most part, the only thing he cares about more than himself is a precious opal that may or may not have “magic powers.”
Uncut Gems is a very Jewish movie—early on, Demany characterizes Howard as “a fuckin’ crazy-ass Jew,” and while just about every scene in the movie is stressful, one of the less stressful moments takes place at a Passover Seder, where much is made of Dinah still fitting into her bat mitzvah dress and where we meet Howard’s affable father-in-law (Judd Hirsch), who’s soon to be one more unlucky schmuck in one of Howard’s schemes. But despite all that, Uncut Gems feels particularly well suited for its Christmas release: Here we are, in the midst of a season when acquiring shiny things is paramount, when there’s never enough time, when even the best plans don’t work, when family feels like an unwanted obligation, and when everyone’s this close to acting like an asshole. Happy holidays.
Uncut Gems opens Tuesday, December 24 at various theaters.