Enter Sandman: ‘Uncut Gems’

By Luke Goodsell
Adam Sandler does what he does best in the Safdie brothers’ cosmic indie thriller

Uncut Gems. Image courtesy Netflix

Magic rocks, diamond-encrusted Furbies, Adam Sandler: all the arcane forces of the universe come to bear on Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (available on Netflix January 31), an electrifying sprint through Manhattan’s high-stakes, fame-adjacent netherworld of sports betting and Midtown hustlers that’s as much cosmic fable as gauntlet-running indie thriller. “They say you can see the whole universe in opals,” says middle-aged jeweller Howard Ratner (Sandler), spellbound by the newly excavated gemstone that sets the plot in motion, “that’s how fuckin’ old they are.”

The ancient power awakens in the film’s opening moments, the camera swooping like a locust across an Ethiopian mine to find a bunch of workers, overseen by their multinational bosses, in an opal-struck frenzy that recalls nothing so much as the discovery of the demon idol in The Exorcist. In one of their dazzling, amusing formal tricks, the Safdies then push in on the rainbow colours of the gem (a high-tech version of the eerie shot in Australian filmmaker Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours [2017]), via what feels like the entire universe, only to emerge right among the squishy innards of Howard himself, prostrate, mid colonoscopy, in a New York doctor’s office. Talk about a possession.

Set to the New Age electronic score of Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), which channels Tomita’s bleeps in the Safdies’ Heaven Knows What (2014), the sequence has a strange, holistic calm – in stark contrast to the nervy, chattering chaos of the city’s Diamond District, the crucible of the film’s action. It’s here, in this seemingly lost-in-time, quintessential New York space – just seconds from the oppressive jumbotron fantasia of Times Square – that Howard, slippery in a leather jacket and the leisure polo of a galactic card shark, holds court as a manic duke of the jewel trade. He flips watches, rings and memorabilia to clients, from shady goombahs to slumming sports stars (often lured into his orbit by his wily assistant, Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield.) Howard’s is a world of spinning plates: crumbling family life with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) on Long Island; a slick uptown pad and a mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), in the city; and rising gambling debts that have put a pack of gravelly voiced goons, led by his grouchy brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), on his tail.

Stirred into the mix is NBA star Kevin Garnett (played by the man himself), whom Howard tempts with his custom-bejewelled Furbies – a totem of some bizarre, alternate consumer timeline. Their bugged-out eyes, savoured in disconcertingly goofy close-up, seem to portend the nerve-wracking delirium to follow. But Garnett is quickly ensnared by the opal, believing it will bring him a winning streak on the court, while Howard thinks the opal’s energy comes from its discovery by displaced African Jews. Each is bewitched in his own way, the uncut rock, like some Tolkienian ring, giving shape to its beholder’s best and worst instincts. (In one sequence, Garnett touches the gem and triggers a hallucinatory montage that seems to span both the history of Africa and the NBA playoffs.)

The film is set in 2012, itself a strange interzone where The Weeknd (also appearing as his younger self) is a fledgling R&B singer on the verge of stardom (“What the fuck is a Weeknd?” grumbles Howard), and Instagram posts are still framed by the blocky queen blue – a world away from the present, where the app currently features Uncut Gems selfie filters with gold chains and Furby pendants for a new generation of aspirant bling ringers. The Safdies, who grew up between Manhattan and Queens, were just lo-fi filmmakers at the time, but their subsequent ascent has been spectacular. This is the brothers’ first film since 2017’s Good Time, a breakout hit that ricocheted bleached-blond scammer Robert Pattinson through a pinball machine of similarly random circumstance, and also revelled in their love for the city that reared them – in all of its cacophonous, race-and-class melting-pot glory. Pattinson’s work with the Safdies was seen less as star transformation than an extension of his daring independent turn, but Sandler’s performance – notoriously, and foolishly, snubbed in recent Oscar nominations – has drawn the predictable backhanded praise reserved for the comedian.

For years, Sandler has been anathema to a certain type of snob, the kind of middle-brow cineastes who insist that the actor’s only good performances exist in the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) or Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) – “proper” films seen as aberrations in a career otherwise dedicated to peddling broad comedies. This approach diminishes Sandler’s gift for manic character study and unpredictable comic rhythm; tolerated in “dumb” classics like Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996), sure, but sadly overlooked in his later works, such as the inclusive, hilarious Zionist parody You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) or his much-maligned, though very charming, gender-switch pantomime Jack and Jill (2011) (which also happens to include Al Pacino’s best 21st-century performance this side of The Irishman).

Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems isn’t some great metamorphosis, as such; it’s Sandler doing what he’s always done best: cultivating an uneasy, livewire anxiety that pulses on top of his characters’ essentially humble, flawed humanity. There’s a scene here in which his badly beaten-up Howard – tissue paper jammed up his nostrils, a pendulum of drool swinging from his lips – is whimpering in his lover’s arms, and it’s all but indistinguishable from any of his man-baby tantrums of yore. I felt bad for the guy but also cackled, and I suspect directors and star would be happy with either response (after all, what’s funnier, and more absurd, than human plight). Sandler’s genius is his ability to convey that highest mode of expression: a synthesis of sincerity and satire, wrapped up in a ball of snot. And where plenty of movies have depicted the hapless travails of Dostoevskian putzes chasing that one lucky score – usually at their comedic expense – the Safdies are, like Sandler, empathetic chroniclers of the desperate and down-on-their-luck. They don’t pity or patronise Howard but embrace him, and we share in his euphoria – despite that fact that he’s kind of a dirtbag.

Likewise, there’s a surfeit of wonderfully drawn, rough-around-the-edges supporting performances: among them the fantastic Julia Fox, holding her head defiantly high in tandem with cinematographer Darius Khondji’s breathtaking tracking shots; and Frozen balladeer Menzel, who goes from priceless, exasperated disdain at her husband’s exploits to full-tilt comedic withering. “Your face is so stupid,” she screams at Howard, on the verge of post-Passover divorce. “You are the most annoying person I have ever met.” Even richer: an appearance from real-life New York character Wayne Diamond, who drops into the action like a leathery angel of fate, and a cameo from Good Times (1974–79) and Coming to America (1988) star John Amos, which I half expected to conclude with him telling Howard to “Stay off the drugs.”

As Howard drills himself ever deeper into trouble, and the opal carves its own path toward destiny, Uncut Gems barely has time to pause for breath, like a playoff game starring New York’s jewellery–dealing underworld where Lopatin’s high-strung score and Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” stand in for the courtside “Charge” fanfare. (You’d better believe the Safdies crank that shit loud.) “What is it about you Jews and basketball?” Demany asks Howard at one point, and indeed both character (who’s frequently seen glued to the game) and filmmakers (whose Lenny Cooke followed a teenage ball player) are obsessed to an infectious degree. When Howard, rapt in a Celtics game, exclaimed, “It’s all down to the last two minutes,” he wasn’t kidding: Uncut Gems burns itself right to the wire, leading to an astonishingly tense and funny climax – set against the outcome of the actual 2012 Boston versus Philadelphia playoff match – that pivots on, of all things, a faulty office door buzzer.

When the camera finally returns to flesh, and into the cosmos, you can almost feel the universe chuckling like some celestial bookmaker, shades tilted, pearly smile flashing, as if to throw the much-memed Sandler moment back at humanity: “This is how I win.”

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


Uncut Gems. Image courtesy Netflix

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