Uncut Gems ★★★★

When a glass countertop shatters under the weight of Boston Celtics legend Kevin Garnett as he stares deep into the rare black opal that gives the movie its title, he takes it as a sign. We struggle to understand what he sees, but for KG it’s clear: he and this stone were meant to be. By contrast, when Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, an manic gambling addict who owes a considerable sum to almost everyone he meets, finds himself naked in the trunk of his car after being nearly strangled to death by his loan sharks, there’s no such epiphany. We struggle to see how he can’t see there’s a problem., but he’s unable to fathom the concept of the bottom. There’s always another score, always something to win.

Uncut Gems is the second film I’ve seen from the Safdie brothers, the first being 2017’s absolutely stellar Good Time starring Robert Pattinson as a sociopathic bank robber perpetually on the run from the law. That was a film marked by its non-stop pace and continual creativity. As much as we hated what Pattinson’s character was doing, we couldn’t help but be astounded by his creativity and survival instincts. It created within me a deep anxiety on par with the best of thrillers.

That same anxiety is most definitely present in Uncut Gems, but its doled out more judiciously. It’s a film marked by the intensely anxious encounters followed by Howard scrambling to find a solution, and often against all odds obtaining small victories that grant a brief reprieve. He’s a man of such extreme confidence and denial that his late-movie breakdown, crying out that everything is going wrong for him, elicits our genuine sympathy – but only to an extent. The evidence presented in the film tells a different story about his complicity in his own troubles.

Yes, the film’s convoluted web of a plot that has Ratner scrambling to collect 100k, keep track of a million dollar uncut gem, and make sure no one takes priceless KG memorabilia from a pawn shop. But we get the sense that more than the average man who’s over his head, this is definitely a problem all of his own making. And it’s a fascinating ride that we join him on as he tries to collect everything that he needs. But he’s the type of a guy who having finally collected enough money to pay off his debts will head straight to his bookie to see if he can increase his riches.

Though, I should be clear, he clearly has a disease, and his gambling addiction is all-encompassing. It touches every aspect of his life. It has ruined his marriage, leaves him distant from his kids, and threatens to bankrupt his family. His wife feels so little affection for him that she laughs in his face when he even tries to make amend. He wants to win.
And with his girlfiend, it’s clear he’s incapable of viewing her as anything more than another object, something to own and win.

And yet, for everything, there’s something sympathetic about Howard despite his obnoxiousness, his short temper, his lack of total logic. Part of it undoubtedly is due to Sandler’s charm in the role. His performance is as good as people say, his ever-present toothy grin projecting his confidence where he shouldn't. We want him to succeed. He seems defenseless, hopeless. He clearly cares about his family. His first thought when some especially loan sharks presents themselves is to tell his wife and kids to clear out of their home. And because his joy at winning is so genuine that it’s a joy to watch.

Despite its thrilling nature, I left the film in much a similar mood as I left Good Time: sad having witnessed the full extent of a disease left unchecked. But that’s not a fault. Rather the film successfully captures the cyclic cognitive pathology of addiction.

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