Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), the owner of a Manhattan jewelry store, has obtained, from illegal mining in Ethiopia, a sweet-potato-shaped stone in which are embedded some beautiful, and presumably valuable, blue opals. Although he’s not had it appraised, Howard believes the rough rock that contains the opals will bring a million dollars at auction, enough to pay off substantial debts he’s incurred, debts held by a bunch of nasty, Mafia-like people, including his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian). With the auction just a few days away, Howard, incredibly, allows the stone to be borrowed by Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (played by Garnett—he can act), who believes it has talismanic qualities that will inspire him and elevate his play. Howard encourages and shares Garnett’s confidence, and he bets heavily (and complexly) on two games, expecting to make a killing. Things go wrong.
Described that way, the set-up seems to hold out the possibility of a successful film, or at least a good story. Unfortunately, “Uncut Gems” is neither. Much of the problem resides with the Ratner character, played with humorless intensity by Sandler, who is in almost every scene. We can’t help but care about him—there’s no one else in the film to care about—and want his schemes to succeed. But Howard is hard to like. A foul-mouthed, manic, compulsive fast talker, he abuses his hooker/girlfriend (Julia Fox), among others; lies to and tries to manipulate his wife (Idina Menzel), who despises him; cares little about his two children or his Jewish heritage; and has not an inkling of how people perceive him. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, who tries to be a decent human being in a world that treats him badly (2019, “Joker”), Howard is the source of his own problems, and decency is not his concern. He’s just a jerk.
Unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, who tries to be a decent human being in a world that treats him badly (2019, ‘Joker’), Howard is the source of his own problems, and decency is not his concern. He’s just a jerk.
Howard’s personality is enough to ruin the film, but a non-credible script contributes. It’s not believable that the auction house would accept Howard’s valuation, then lower it significantly without informing him; that the film’s bad guys would find themselves trapped for hours between bullet-proof glass doors in Howard’s shop; or that the door malfunctions just as Garnett appears with the long overdue stone. And it’s not believable that Howard would regularly instigate situations where he’s sure to be beat up or possibly killed.
One could argue that beneath Howard’s penchant for self-destructive behavior is some sort of death wish, and that the subject of death underpins the film. Howard is fearful that he may have colon cancer. The filmmakers present live-streaming color video of his colonoscopy, akin to the New Age photography of the opals that opens the film, and of the blood that closes it (perhaps the directors, brothers Benny and Josh Safdie [“Good Time” 2017] are showing off the film’s 35mm production values). Even so, the script hardly deserves this level of scrutiny and analysis.
“Uncut Gems” also suffers from a surfeit of over-talking, a technique pioneered in 1971 to much acclaim in a bar scene in Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” but here carried to such an extreme that it’s often difficult to follow and understand what is being said. Add to that a soundtrack that’s blaring, thumping, intrusive, and constant—and build it all around one of the most obnoxious protagonists in recent cinema—and you’ve got an irritating mess: not only an unlikeable character, but an unlikeable film.
2 Stars (out of 4)
Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield
Runtime: 135 minutes
Still playing at all the Regals and McKinley 6
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