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Film Review: “Uncut Gems” Delivers an Effective, If Unpleasant, Thrill Ride

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 25th, 2019

Film poster: “Uncut Gems”

Uncut Gems (Benny Safdie/Josh Safdie, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The new film from brothers Benny and Josh Safdie (Good Time), Uncut Gems, is a manic thriller about deeply unpleasant people. As such, it often impresses with its mechanics while repelling with its characters. Their abhorrence is very much the point, and their eventual comeuppance the rotten cherry on top of this noxious sundae, so there is no point decrying failed intent as a reason for why I had had my fill halfway through. The Safdies know what they’re doing, and do it well. I’m just not sure I always want they’re selling.

Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories) stars as Howard Ratner, a New York-based jeweler who is leveraged beyond his means, both professionally and personally. His wife hates him (and with good reason), his young mistress may not be faithful, and his various get-rich-quick schemes have recently failed him, not helped in any way by his compulsive and self-destructive gambling. He is cruising for a bruising, from debt collectors and family alike, who may, as we learn, be connected in startling ways. When Howard finally receives a long-coveted uncut opal from Ethiopia, he’s convinced that its sale at an upcoming auction will solve all his money problems. Not so fast; if anyone can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it’s him.

To give credit where it’s due, the Safdies keep the story and camera moving at an appealing, if exhausting, breakneck speed, never allowing us to rest for a moment. Perfectly matching their mise-en-scène is Sandler, himself, delivering a frenzied performance as a man unhinged. It’s solid work, though without much room for nuance. The ensemble provides good support, whether from Eric Bogosian (Cadillac Records) as the loan shark, newcomer Julia Fox as the mistress, LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) as a friend/colleague (of sorts), or even pro basketballer Kevin Garnett as himself, though Idina Menzel (Frozen II) is wasted in the role of the bitter wife. The directors play a skilled cinematic game of what looks like messy checkers but is actually 3D chess.

Adam Sandler in UNCUT GEMS ©A24

Unfortunately, for this viewer, fatigue set in somewhere in the second act, as I simply ceased to care about the outcome. Let the chess pieces fall where they may, I thought, it doesn’t matter: this guy deserves what he gets. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s final moments, the script redeeming itself with a nasty twist that caught me unawares. This rough gem may be uncut, but it’s sharp and will make you bleed.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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