I frequently say that characters don’t need to be likable; they just need to be compelling. Pretty much every single character in Josh & Benny Safdie’s new movie Uncut Gems is someone you wouldn’t want to spend more than five minutes with, but they’re not particularly interesting either. It’s a collection of self-destructive, self-indulgent people or outright bullies and they spend most of the movie just yelling at each other. But that’s a good environment for the King of Angry Yelling, Adam Sandler, a man who has yelled at everything from crowds to a golf ball. Uncut Gems is an exhausting grind, but Sandler’s fury and comic timing are perfectly suited to this tale of angry scumbags.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a diamond dealer in New York City who can’t stop obliterating his own life. He’s deeply in debt to loan sharks but keeps placing huge bets on sporting events. After receiving a valuable opal, Howard thinks selling it at auction will solve all his problems, but foolishly decides to loan it to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (as himself). With loan sharks closing in and his debts piling up, Howard struggles to get the opal back and win big before his entire life falls apart.
Uncut Gems isn’t really a movie where you “root” for anyone. Howard’s best case scenario is indulging his gambling habit and cheating on his wife (Idina Menzel) with his hot employee, Julia (Julia Fox). Instead, we watch Howard make a string of stupid, self-destructive moves and then get into a screaming match with everyone he meets. This is the film from the opening credits and it lasts for over two hours. Some might find Howard’s self-destructive spiral interesting, but for me it was repetitive and predictable. You know that no matter what happens, Howard is his own worst enemy and so we just have to wait and see the next uncomfortable interaction. It’s similar to the Safdies’ previous movie, Good Time, but without the protagonist’s good intentions.
The saving grace is Sandler. I don’t even know if I’d qualify his work here as a “great performance” since it’s not like he’s really stretching himself to play a guy who yells at everyone, but he’s great for this role. He shows no need to be liked, but he has the comic timing to keep us engaged with Howard’s obnoxious shenanigans and the energy to sustain his endless rage. It’s a testament to Sandler’s devotion that he keeps Howard entertaining even though the character isn’t all that complex or nuanced.
But because the character is a self-destructive black hole surrounded by other self-serving characters, Uncut Gems, with its aggressive cinematography and score, just feels like a drain. It’s not a “crazy” movie; just a very loud one. If someone were to shout in your face for 135 minutes, you wouldn’t question their devotion, but you’d still eventually find it tedious and irritating all the same. There are those who might enjoy Howard’s constant implosion, but I quickly became impatient for the collapse.
Uncut Gems opens December 25th.