Adam Sandler hustles his way through a sustained cinematic anxiety attack.
This is a spoiler-free review.
There’s a moment early on in Uncut Gems when sleazy jewelry dealer Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, has a choice to make. He’s in possession of valuable merchandise that he plans to sell in order to pay off his gambling debts to the mob and make a tidy profit to boot. To solve all his problems he need only sit tight and do nothing. But when an illustrious customer asks to “borrow” the merchandise — just for the night! — Howard makes a show of hesitation before handing it over. He knows the danger he’s flirting with but he does it anyway because to do otherwise would be utterly against his nature. This is the theme of Uncut Gems, a film as frenzied and anxiety-inducing as the most madcap French farce. Howard isn’t interested in a calm, normal life. He is an addict — addicted to gambling, to money, to status. Breaking even and walking away isn’t in his vocabulary, and slowing down for even one second would require him to reckon with the terrible state his life is in.
From minute one Howard is at the center of a self-made hurricane of stress and urgency. Directors Benny and Josh Sadfie have shot Uncut Gems as a non-stop assault, an unyielding 135-minute panic attack which sees star Adam Sandler delivering what at times feels like a single, seemingly unbroken monologue. The film is shot almost entirely from the shaky perspective of handheld cameras which effectively imbues the story with the kinetic, unnerving energy of a war film. The hypnotic, synth-heavy score by Daniel Lopatin looms ominously, enveloping the film in an eerie, other-worldly mood that makes Howard’s journey feel that much more like a fugue state.
Sandler does a lot of heavy lifting here, but just as in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, his presence feels like stunt casting. He gives an admirably energetic performance from a script that demands little dramatic range, but this character could have been played effectively by any number of actors, and indeed already has been. For all its flashy visuals and of-the-moment music, this is a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.
As viscerally told as Uncut Gems is one still wonders: do we really need another film like this? Do we really need another male-led fable about the immeasurable limits of human avarice? The film is visually and auditorily striking, it’s true, but beneath the 24-karat veneer lies the same old story about the male fascination with crime and greed — a thesis nobody in 2019 needs to be convinced of. It would be interesting to see the Sadfies turn their stylish eye towards a story as unique as their visuals.
If you’re prone to anxiety, you might have to take Uncut Gems in installments. On a technical level the film is extremely effective in conveying a sense of oppressive, all-consuming dread and panic. But the underlying stock story is as common as glass and ultimately has nothing particularly profound to offer a modern audience. With all its flash and sparkle, Uncut Gems is as gaudy and cheap as a counterfeit watch.