Uncut Gems (2019)

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Food: The last restaurant we spent time at while in Park City was a place called Flanagan’s on Main which was a typical Irish pub with a large menu, with everything from spicy baked potatoes to bacon wrapped shrimp served in a scampi sauce with garlic cheese toast. Continuing with the pattern of getting soup everywhere in that freezing city, I ordered potato leek with a whiskey coke.

Film: “Uncut Gems” is the newest work of a set of brothers, Josh and Benny Safdie, and it is their largest undertaking yet. These two are masters of adrenaline generating movies led by difficult characters. It is really easy to destroy a film with this type of frenzied style, but when done well, it is felt so deeply and will sit with you long after it is over.

The chaos of street level New York is integral to this story, as much as our lead character, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) lives and breathes by a heightened state of stress at all times. It is a visceral depiction of addiction, a person who cannot help but to create horrible situations for himself. Digging himself deeper into debt, his go-to slogan is “it will pay off.”

Safdie brothers tend to rely on intense, cacophonous sounds and imagery to almost overwhelm the senses, but master the ability to keep it controlled enough to allow audiences to connect to it, rather than scare off. The film picks up in the day of the life, but it is all wrapped around this specific black opal (which has been dug out from the Welo opal mines in northern Ethiopia). Playfully, the opal, the search for it, as well as the power of it is symbolic of Howard’s gambling addiction. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” it is referred to as “dragon sickness” – the hypnotic power of gems luring men into madness since the beginning of time.

The story begins with Howard at his Diamond District jewelry store as he (very) excitedly opens up a package to reveal the aforementioned opal, which is delivered while his assistant Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings in Boston Celtics star player Kevin Garnett (as himself) to try to sell him something big. Unable to contain himself, Howard shows Garnett the gem, who then asks to borrow it. Reluctantly, Howard says “yes” – a choice that he spends a majority of the film regretting.

It is about a quarter of the way into the film that you realize that the young girlfriend Howard shares a city apartment (Julia Fox) is actually his mistress, and back in Long Island is his wife (Idina Menzel) who can barely stand him, and his three children. He is always on the go, playing the part required for every situation he is in, and almost constantly talking.

This is a man who has an aggrandized sense of self-confidence, which is not ever entirely delusional, it is just unsustainable. He is wildly in debt from various deals he has made, and in attempts to pay them, he makes increasingly unpredictable bets with higher stakes and larger consequences. This is the type of character that is easy to hate on paper, but what Adam Sandler brings to the project is an effortless, lovable type of charm, which is what compels the audience to pull for him, propelling the story forward.

Howard is not a loser, though. As Josh Safdie describes him, he is a “winner who doesn’t win.” He does not give up and he will hustle, scheme, argue, fight, and do whatever it takes to make things happen. The film is an anxiety inducing trip, much like the previous film by this director duo, “Good Time.” The heartbeat of the film is like that of one about to have a heart attack, but in the best way. It is filled with the reverberations of real life, real people, the liveliness of the city, and feels like an entirely immersive experience. Hats off.

 

 

 

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