Editor’s note: In an effort to work ahead and enjoy Memorial Day weekend with my family, this review is being published a week ahead of the Netflix release of “Uncut Gems” on Memorial Day, May 25.
Well, what are we to make of “Uncut Gems?”
So again, what are we supposed to make of this – a film that seems to be both loved and hated simultaneously?
Well, that must mean it’s art. True art exists not to be loved universally but to be endlessly debated. And there is much to debate in “Uncut Gems.”
I’m still debating much of it myself – whether it’s a great film or a terrible one. I’m inclined to lean a bit toward the former, but I imagine my opinion will likely change tomorrow and again the day after. Because, like all good art, “Uncut Gems” gets under your skin – forcing you to evaluate it and re-evaluate it again and again.
The film is intricately layered, but also so deceptively simple that its plot can be summarized in just one sentence: Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a gambling addict who makes a series of increasingly risky bets while alienating his friends, family and co-workers.
That might not seem like enough to carry a feature film – let alone one that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours- but directors Josh and Benny Safdie make that time fly by never letting their foot off the accelerator. “Uncut Gems” is a film that is always on the move – Howard is always walking or talking or cursing, often as a half dozen other people are walking or talking or cursing.
That propulsive energy is the film’s biggest advantage, I think. Even the film’s biggest detractors aren’t likely to argue that it’s boring.
A criticism they are likely to level is that not a single character is likable, not the least of which is Howard. Sandler is as grating as ever, although I guess we have to give him credit for being intentionally grating this time around. The lies, curse words and empty threats – often delivered in top volume in that classic braying Sandler voice- are annoying after a few minutes. After two-and-a-half hours, they’re just exhausting.
But really there isn’t a rooting interest in this thing – from Howard’s grating family (Idina Menzel is his wife and Judd Hirsch his father-in-law) to the savage loan shark (Eric Bogosian) chasing him to his lazy and unfaithful mistress (Julia Fox).
The performances are a mixed bag. On the plus side, Fox is a nice find with a great future in the industry, and Bogosian makes for an inscrutable and intense heavy.
Sandler is, as always, a bit out of his depth- he just repeats his two or three notes of range over and over again, often at top volume. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was right to “snub” him for the Oscar this spring.
A subplot involving the 2012 NBA finals brings in basketball great Kevin Garnett, who doesn’t even have the range of Michael Jordan in “Space Jam.”
At the end of the day, “Uncut Gems” is, as Variety put it, “a manic roller-coaster of despair.” The Safdies give us a relentlessly ugly world filled with relentlessly ugly people, and that leaves us with a stressful and relentlessly uncomfortable movie.
On some level, the stress is the point and so is the discomfort. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should bask in it for two-and-a-half hours.
I get the love for this nerve-jangling little film and enjoyed many of the unexpected twists and turns. But the genuine unpleasantness from start to finish and the unevenness of the performances don’t have me clamoring to see it again.
Your mileage may vary, which makes its new home on Netflix the perfect place to watch “Uncut Gems” (rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use). And if you get five minutes in and decide you’d rather watch “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” instead, well I can’t say I blame you.
“Uncut Gems” is a film that is not for everyone – or anyone, maybe. And in an age of mass-appeal blockbusters, you’ve got to agree that there’s something kind of fantastic about that.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.