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Arts & Culture

'Uncut Gems' Is The Perfect Antidote For Holiday Cheer

Howard (Adam Sandler, center) just doesn't get it: when you don't pay loan sharks, they get mad. A scene from the new film "Uncut Gems."
A24/Julieta Cervantes
Howard (Adam Sandler, center) just doesn't get it: when you don't pay loan sharks, they get mad. A scene from the new film "Uncut Gems."

Adam Sandler stars as a compulsive gambler on a self-destructive rampage

Companion viewing

"The Gambler" (1974)

"Good Time" (2017)

"The Meyerowitz Stories" (20187)

For the holidays you can choose between the beloved classic "Little Women" or the edgy indie film "Uncut Gems." Guess which one I'm recommending?

That's right, resist the temptation to see the feel-good film and take a risk on the feel-bad one (and I use that term in the most complimentary way).

'Uncut Gems' Is The Perfect Antidote For Holiday Cheer
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

The press materials for "Uncut Gems" describe Adam Sandler’s compulsive gambler Howard Ratner as “charismatic.” Perhaps, but it’s a charisma that has burned itself out and Howard is now coasting on fumes.

He has a gorgeous, smart wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) but he also has a love pad set up for his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) who also works at his jewelry store in New York's Diamond District. Howard wants to be a player, a winner, someone who others look to as important. He thinks he has finally hit upon the score that is going to change his life. He has managed to get his hands on an uncut opal from an Ethiopian Jewish mining company. He has been told it's valued at over $1 million and he plans to auction it off. But, before he brings it to the auction house, he has to brag about his find to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself and it doesn't hurt that his name also calls to mind a gemstone) who comes into his shop. Garnett wants to borrow the gem as a good luck charm for his game and here's where things start to take an accelerated downward spiral for Howard as he makes one bad decision after another.

The film's only flaw is that I can't figure out how Howard got to such a high point to fall down from. Compulsive gambling tends to be a lifelong problem, so why didn't he hit bottom sooner? Howard also has a total lack of morality in the sense that he writes the rules as he goes along depending on his needs. So if Garnett gives him the NBA championship ring as collateral for the uncut gem, Howard has no problem pawning it.

Cinema Junkie Looks To Holiday Releases

At one point, as his marriage is shattering into pieces around him, he asks his wife for one more chance, ever though she knows he's got gambling debts and a mistress on the side. This is the point where I wondered if the film would relent and not take Howard's story to its logical extreme. But it doesn't pull any punches. Dinah replies to his plea by telling him, "I think you are the most annoying person I ever met… and if I had my way I would never see you again."

She’s absolutely right, yet somehow this audaciously in-your-face, aggravating film that takes its personality from its protagonist proves riveting. You know how in a horror film you watch the characters on screen and nervously say to yourself or even out loud, "don't go into that room" or "look behind you." Watching "Uncut Gems" made me more tense than most horror films as I watched Howard careen toward self-destruction. He makes one astoundingly bad decision after another without even taking a moment’s breath in between. So you will likely feel yourself nervously watching his actions and wanting to blurt out, "No, don't make another huge bet," or "Don't piss off that loan shark or he'll break your kneecaps!"


Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (they made "Good Time" in 2017), the film excels at making you feel uncomfortable and I hesitate to even call it entertainment but they execute the film with such a meticulous and rapturous sense of escalating crisis that it’s like a car crash you drive by and can’t look away from.

Daniel Lopatin's score and Darius Khondji's cinematography (enhanced by colorist Damien van der Cruyssen) intensity the film's driving pace that is moving relentlessly toward Howard's ultimate crash and burn. Despite the dark tones of the story, the film has some gorgeous cinematic moments whether its a visual journey into the splendors of the uncut gem or the magic of a school play as Howard's daughter acts in a play about greed that falls on the deaf ears of her father. The film moves like a single precision machine with every elements just pushing us forward in Howard's story. It may help that not only do Josh and Benny write and direct together but Benny edits the film. Directors who also edit (Robert Rodriguez, the Coens, Akira Kurosawa) seem to have an advantage in keeping the vision of their films sharply focused.

I don't want to give away some of the film's best moments because the Safdies ramp up the film with such brutal exactitude that I don't want viewers waiting for a scene or moment. But the Safdies have a knack for showing us extreme characters and setting up scenes that beautifully reveal who those people are.

Sandler excels as Howard. He seems able to alternate between dumb comedies ("You Don't Mess with the Zohan," "Click," "Jack and Jill") and smart indie fare ("The Meyerowitz Stories," "Punch Drunk Love"). Although the dumb films heavily outweigh the smart ones. As Howard, Sandler uses his own likability to provide a hint as to how Howard might have gotten to where he's at. Sandler's performance is restless and always moving, like a shark who can't simply stop for a moment and think about what he's doing. Menzel and Fox are also outstanding, giving some depth to characters that are on the periphery of Howard's life.

"Uncut Gems" is definitely not for everyone but if you want a scathing antidote to holiday cheer then this is it. When I left the theater I felt like I could never sit through the film again because it did such a good job of showing us such an aggressively aggravating character. But it's a film I can't help thinking about so now I'm itching to see it again and willing to put myself through this exquisitely well-crafted ringer one more time.