Having seen the brothers Josh and Ben Safdie‘s 2017 crime thriller Good Time, I was more than excited to see their next feature film, Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, with Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer. Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, who is a gambling addict and narcissist in New York City’s Diamond District. The idea for the film was inspired by Safdie brothers’ own father and his time working in the same Manhattan Diamond District and the script was co-written by the brothers and their friend Ronald Bronstein. Ratner, a Jewish jewelry shop owner and profiteer, is already over his head taking out loans to feed his gambling habits and constantly dealing with loan sharks who chasing after him.
The film starts with Ethiopian miners finding a fantastic gem, an uncut opal that has numerous sparking and shining properties. This uncut gem finds its way to Howard Ratner, just as he is opening his shop for NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who is in the middle of a title run with the Boston Celtics. Garnett and his posse come in to shop for some unique jewelry pieces and Ratner offers them various different things such as diamond watches and a diamond-covered animal creature with creepily moving eyes. Garnett doesn’t seem interested and is ready to leave, so while Howard’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) distracts Garnett with some small talk, Ratner and his assistant/girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) open up a freshly delivered package containing the shiny uncut opal.
Not having the ability to contain himself, Ratner shows Garnett the opal and Garnett instantly wants to buy it. Refusing to sell it, Ratner makes a deal with Garnett to let him hold onto it for good luck at his game that night, putting up his Celtics championship diamond ring as collateral. While being pursued by his own brother-in-law loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his goons, Ratner immediately runs off to a pawn shop to pawn Garnett’s ring in exchange for some quick cash he can gamble with. More specifically, Ratner plans to bet it all on Garnet having a personal best night at the basketball game he is playing in that night, scoring a personal best and helping the Celtics win the game.
In his personal life, Howard is dealing with his estranged wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who intends to divorce him after Passover (but doesn’t want to confront him in front of their kids) and his assistant/girlfriend/mistress Julia. Howard gets jealous when he finds Julia at a concert with The Weekend (plays himself) making out in the bathroom. Howard kicks Julia out of the apartment he is renting for her, without his wife’s knowledge. Things get worse for Howard when Demany tells him that even though Garnett won his game the previous night and Howard made some money, Garnett now wants to keep the opal for a considerable time longer. This is a problem for Howard as he intends to sell the opal at a high-end auction that is mere days away.
Howard gets jumped at his daughter’s school play by Arno and his bodyguards Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), who strip Howard naked and lock him in the trunk of his own car, forcing him to call Dinah to unlock it for him. Prior to locking Howard in the car trunk, Arno tells Howard that he placed a stop on the bet that Howard had made on Garnett’s game, as the bet was made with money owed to him. Garnett contacts Howard prior to the auction and offers him $175,000 to purchase the opal but Howard refuses, thinking that it would make more money at the auction. Howard convinces his father-in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch) to bid against Garnett at the auction, but Garnett senses something is off and bows out before the opal reaching Howard’s minimum price of $200,000, forcing Gooey to purchase it with Howards own money. Arno, Phil and Nico confront Howard in front of the auction and end up punching him in the nose as Howard falls into the nearby fountain in front of the building.
Kevin Garnett, still wanting the opal, reaches out to Howard to try one more time to purchase the opal for $175,000, and this time Howard agrees. But instead of paying back Arno, Phil and Nico the money he owes them, Howard tells his recently reconciled with assistant/girlfriend Julia to take the money and place a bet on Garnett’s basketball game at a nearby casino. Howard locks Arno, Phil and Nico in his jewelry shop’s security area between doors and watches Garnett’s basketball game from inside his shop.
SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) Howard wins big (over one million dollars) and when he releases Arno, Phil and Nico from in-between the doors to his jewelry shop, Phil shoots Howard in the head at point-blank range, also shoots and kills Arno, and Phil and Nico rob Howard’s shop. The camera zooms inside Howard’s bullet hole.
Adam Sandler gave a tour-de-force performance. Not only does he deliver on of his best dramatic performances ever, Sandler also delivers a one of a kind equally impressive comedic performance that makes his audience squirm and laugh nervously in their seats, not knowing when a punch would be thrown his away making the situation time times more uncomfortable. Additionally, Kevin Garnett is realistic and believable, playing the NBA Basketball Champion, looking for a lucky gem that would help him win his next championship. The interaction between Sandler and Garnet is at times scripted but often improvised. Sander finds a way to make the crazy compulsive gambler and jewelry salesman character relatable and somewhat compassionate but also someone Garnett could go toe-to-toe with and still be fearful of him.
The other supporting cast Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel all pull their weight in their respective scenes, but it is newcomer Julia Fox who stands out as Howard’s assistant and on-and-off again girlfriend. Fox, who is making her first feature film appearance in Uncut Gems, is a standout in the film, making a perfect partner for Howard and Julia’s toxic and yet very, very hyper-romantic relationship (at least according to co-director, co-writer Josh Safdie). I can see both Sandler and Fox being recognized for the originality as well as their codependency in making their onscreen relationship work.
Uncut Gems is one of best films I’ve seen this year, in what has been an overall fantastic year for cinema and original storytelling. This Safdie Brothers crime thriller is definitely in my top-ten list and I can see it winning multiple awards in the next month or two (Sandler is already getting heavy Oscar buzz).
– Review by Vitali Gueron
Have you seen UNCUT GEMS? Well, what did you think?