“Uncut Gems,” the latest from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, blows in like a Category 4 hurricane. It’s a tumult of sensory extremes, of images and sounds, lurching shapes, braying voices, intensities of feeling and calculated craziness. So, naturally it stars — why not? — Adam Sandler as a cheat, liar, loving dad, bad husband, jealous lover and compulsive gambler who can’t stop, won’t stop acting the fool.
The Safdies, two of the more playfully inventive filmmakers working in American cinema, won’t stop, either, which makes “Uncut Gems” fun if also wearying and at times annoying. It doesn’t seem to add up to much — a little man lives his life — but this is just enough. It’s easier to admire than to love, and I hate the ending, but the Safdies clearly like working your nerves. They’re not interested in the dumb, easy stuff that movies give you — the likable, relatable characters, the sermonizing and moralizing; they’re too busy deploying color and noise, pushing the form, testing their (and our) limits.
Amid this enjoyable chaos, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, who has a small jewelry store in Manhattan’s Diamond District. He has a few employees, one of whom is his mistress (Julia Fox), and an aggrieved wife (Idina Menzel) who’s fed up with him. He’s a careless family man, but he dotes on his sons and still clocks in for homey obligations. There’s a leisurely Passover Seder in the middle of the movie that’s suffused with love and alive with squalling kids, bustling women and well-padded men chewing cigars. But Howard has his plagues: He’s a gambler and presumably an unlucky one, given the heavy debt that he’s carrying.
Lots of stuff happens, lots and lots, and some of it can be hard to track. But the bedlam is intentional and amusing. All you need to do is latch onto Howard as he runs from here to there, yelling greetings, taking calls, making deals, always moving amid jump cuts, zooms and lurid close-ups. (The superb cinematography is by Darius Khondji, shooting on 35-millimeter film.) Howard’s dodging some toughs who work for a mystery man whom he owes big; the men are scary, bruisers with cruelty etched in their faces and no trace of the usual movie manicuring. One (Keith Williams Richards) punches Howard in the kisser, which is almost understandable.
Written by the Safdies with their regular collaborator, filmmaker Ronald Bronstein, “Uncut Gems” opens with a prologue, a familiar enough narrative strategy. It’s unusual, though, for the Safdies, as is the site: a mine in Ethiopia, where throngs of men are scrambling around a gravely wounded worker. The location shooting initially seems pointless (what happens could be conveyed in dialogue), and like the casting of Sandler, it broadcasts that they’re working with a higher budget. Structurally, the opener echoes the clichéd place-setting in Hollywood adventures, the ones with dashing heroes, offensively exoticized extras and maybe a mummy or two.
More specifically, the dusty, enigmatic opener in “Uncut Gems” drolly echoes the start of “The Exorcist” (1973), where a priest at an archaeological dig in Iraq unearths the demonic relic that sets off the ensuing horror, the possession and spewing vomit. The magical discovery here is made by two Ethiopian miners, who sneak away from the bedlam to dig out a similar-looking lumpy rock. This turns out to be a huge black opal that soon ends up in Howard’s possession, though not for long. Like the “Exorcist” relic, the opal proves an ominous if more contemporary fetish with a near-magical, increasingly dangerous hold on everyone who comes in contact with it.
Howard believes that the opal will save him — he plans to sell it at auction — but like good fortune, the precious lump keeps slipping from his grasp. For the most part, the Safdies seem to enjoy mucking up Howard’s plans, intensifying his rotten luck, bad choices, collapsing home life and squabbles, pointless or otherwise. They bat him around, dunk him in a fountain, almost break his nose. He’s a Rabelaisian figure, absurd, lewd, excessive, and while the Safdies are obviously fond of him (the scenes with his children are a tip-off), they don’t cut him much slack. Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; the movie mostly is, too, though at 135 minutes it’s not short.
Sandler makes a persuasively unsteady hub for this pinwheeling anarchy. It’s an intensely physical role — Howard racks up the miles — and generally a reactive one. Every so often Sandler gets to expand the character’s emotional register, in lulls and moments of tenderness and real feeling. Then boom! He’s off again, diving into the clamor, trying to hustle basketball star Kevin Garnett (as himself) or manage an unruly partner in his hustle (an excellent Lakeith Stanfield). Garnett delivers a speech to Howard about race and exploitation, which brings the story back to Ethiopia. Garnett’s sincerity may resonate with you, but with Howard? Not so much.
Howard is running too quickly to really listen, and he doesn’t really care. The world is what it is, dog-eat-dog flimflam man, get rich or die trying. The Safdies don’t judge Howard or, worse yet, ask us to. Instead, they situate him in a specific historical moment (the year is 2012), throwing him into a late-capitalist, wholly transactional, anxiously insecure world. Deeply immersive, that world carries the imprint of its cinematic influences — bards of excess like Abel Ferrara, James Toback, Tony Scott and Gaspar Noé — but it is also and finally its own rough and glittering thing of beauty.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for gun violence, bloodletting and gambling.