CRITIPEG: Uncut Gems

Streaming now on Netflix, plays at Cinematheque until Feb. 10, ★★★★½

The pre-release hype for Uncut Gems achieved a fever pitch rivalled only by the frustration over its tiny theatrical rollout. The follow-up by directors Josh and Benny Safdie to their 2017 thriller Good Time, Gems’s early screening at the Telluride Film Festival in August quickly earned the film a reputation as a stressful and exhilarating experience with a great dramatic performance from Adam Sandler.

Audiences eagerly awaited its theatrical release, but a slow trickle out into cities on the “limited release” circuit meant many people who wanted to see the film couldn’t. Gems set records for per-screen earnings as it slowly snaked its way across the continent in December and January, finally beginning its Winnipeg run at Cinematheque on Jan. 19. As of Jan. 31, every Canadian Netflix subscriber can now watch the film from home. But if you have the chance to see the film at Cinematheque, do it.

Uncut Gems stars Sandler as Howard Ratner, a gambling-addicted jeweler in Manhattan’s Diamond District. Howard frantically skips across town, placing a spiralling series of increasingly precarious bets on basketball games, pawning irreplaceable items to generate more money, all while dodging his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his strong-arm cronies. Howard’s in deep with Arno, and Arno is out for blood.

Sandler has taken on a handful of dramatic roles, many of them successful (Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People), others less so (the misguided 9/11 drama Reign Over Me and the baffling The Cobbler). What all those performances have in common is their relationship to Adam Sandler’s comedic persona as an angry and insecure buffoon. His dramatic roles have all either utilized that persona (Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan has a lot in common with The Wedding Singer’s Robbie Hart) or actively subverted it (in Reign Over Me, the way his character is changed by the 9/11 attacks is illustrated by how obviously different Sandler’s demeanor is from his typical surly self).

What Uncut Gems accomplishes for the first time is allowing Sandler to completely disappear into a character. Howard Ratner is such a fully realized person, so clearly inspired by actual personalities in the Diamond District (the Safdie Brothers’ father was a jeweller, and the film was inspired by stories from the trade they heard growing up). The film is populated by non-professional actors who are recognizably real New York characters. However, other professional actors, including Idina Menzel and Judd Hirsch, give memorable performances as well, and basketball star Kevin Garnett is surprisingly moving playing himself.

The Safdies’ kinetic camerawork and Daniel Lopatin’s appropriately oppressive score give the film a propulsive tension that increases at record pace, never giving the audience a moment’s respite. Themes of addiction, privilege and capitalism give Uncut Gems a sinister undercurrent that elevates it from a clockwork thriller to a legitimate tragedy. It earns its hype.

Published in Volume 74, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 6, 2020)

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