Uncut Gems (2019)

Movie Info

Movie Notes



Movie Info

Joshua and Benny Safdie
Run Time
2 hours and 15 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly.

Proverbs 17:12
The mouths of fools are their ruin, and their lips a snare to themselves.

Proverbs 18:7
Howard tells Boston Celtics Kevin Garnett about his ill-fated uncut gems. (c) A24

I wonder if directors Joshua and Benny Safdie, along with their co-writer Ronald Bronstein, were aware of the book of Proverbs when they were planning Uncut Gems. As brilliantly played by Adam Sandler, NYC jeweler Howard Ratner could be the poster child of the fool described so often in that book. Indeed, so often that if you were to do a word search of “fool” and “folly” in Proverbs, you could say the author was obsessed by the subject. If anyone has been so “immersed in folly” that it has brought him to ruin, it is this hapless schemer.

The dark comedy begins in northern Ethiopia where we see miners, members of a sect of Ethiopian Jews, carrying one of their fellows whose leg is bleeding from an accident. The camera takes us deep into the mine and then a rock in which are embedded several gorgeous opals. Lights seem to blaze within them. The camera keeps moving into one of them, with various shapes passing by. Then we are inside a human organ, and we hear the voices of the doctors conducting a colonoscopy. As the camera emerges, we see the patient’s name of the machine—it is our antihero Howard Ratner. Thus, the Safdie brothers set forth the metaphor declaring how deeply obsessed Howard is with jewels, very much like Gollum is with the ring he calls “Precious” in the Lord of the Rings cycle.

Howard is an addicted gambler hugely in debt to some very tough looking guys. He believes that his latest acquisition, a rock with several embedded rare opals, is his ticket out of his troubles when it is sold the next week at a high rollers’ gem auction. Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a shady hustler, works with Howard by bringing by potential customers. Currently it is Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (the real star playing himself), who loves the kind of bling on display. He is in the city with his team playing an important game. He has been waiting in the shop as Howard returns from his colonoscopy.

Howard, unable to resist the urge to brag to Kevin about his latest acquisition, brings it out for display. The ballplayer is intrigued by the sparkling lights of the “uncut gems.” Believing they would bring him luck in the upcoming game, he tries to buy the rock. Howard has to tell him it is reserved for the auction. Not wanting to wait to bid on it, Kevin asks to borrow it for the weekend, eventually agreeing to leave his championship ring as collateral. Howard, needing cash right away for his overdue gambling debts, rushes to a pawn dealer for the cash. He will redeem it by the next Friday with the money received from sale of the uncut gems. Everyone will receive their money (and ring), and he can start afresh. What could go wrong?

Everything, it seems. As the events of the next couple of days unfold, Howard seems like one of those carnival jugglers twirling plates, saucers and cups atop sticks held in his hands, perched on one foot and his two hands, one wobbling item always in danger of starting a fall that will bring everything else down too. And with Howard it does, just one of which is Kevin not returning the rock when promised so that Howard can deposit it at the auction house. This is just one of a series of disasters, with Kevin trying to fast talk his way out of one crisis, only to become embroiled in another. And the thugs that keep popping up in search of their money are threatening to do far more than garnishee his wages! The double door to his shop, controlled by an often-malfunctioning buzzer system, does allow him a few 15 or 20 seconds, during which he can slip out a back door of his private office, but he cannot hide forever.

Howard’s family life is impacted by his nefarious scheming. Dinah (Idina Menzel), his longsuffering wife is about to give up on him, despite his ardent pleading. At a play in which his daughter has a part, he is in and out of the auditorium trying to deal with a problem over his cellphone. In a tragicomedy climax to this sequence he winds up naked in the back of his car trunk! At the family Passover dinner where he is supposed to read a part, he is much in the kitchen talking on his phone as he is at the table. He is also dealing with girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox). Events proceed so rapidly that we barely have time to ask, “Can things get any worse for this schmuck?” only to learn, “Yes, they can.”

The pace of the film, the use of closeups with a handheld camera, the dialogue, probably 90% of which is at the level of shouting leaves the viewer exhausted. Howard’s life is such a wreck, and yet so compelling that it is like a highway accident for which everyone slows down in order to gawk at the carnage. The Book of Proverbs could have been written about him. Indeed, when I did a word search for “trouble,” I found these two quotations, along with many others:

– Those who trouble their households will inherit wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise. Proverbs 11:29

-Those who are greedy for unjust gain make trouble for their households, but those who hate bribes will live. Proverbs 15:27

As a neo film noir, Uncut Gems will be loved by fans of pulp fiction-type crime thrillers. Adam Sandler deserves all the praise he is receiving from critics, this being by far the best of his recent performances. He gives himself completely over to the portrayal of a lost soul perpetually on the edge of disaster, until at last his self-destroying lifestyle catches up with him. And yet we root for him, and as each segment ends with the dashing of his schemes, we hope that somehow, he will pull off the next one. Where is that fairy tale angel or deus ex machina? Nowhere to be found in this gritty tale.

This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.



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