Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems ★★★½


Disclaimer 1: I have a tough time falling in love with films that use gambling addiction as a major fulcrum of action, not because I’m altogether unsympathetic to the afflictions of others, but out of all the possible maladies that might befall a protagonist, gambling addiction has always been the least interesting and commiserative (to me). Try as I might, I can’t unsee these acts of compulsion as anything beyond boneheaded decisions; that’s on me, I guess—and yes, I know gambling addiction is real, I just rarely respond explosively to it on screen. (And there are a few films of that ilk I enjoy e.g. ROUNDERS, HARD EIGHT, or MISSISSIPPI GRIND, but I can’t think of any that are truly great.)

Disclaimer 2: The Safdie brothers are known for writing characters who, regardless of their various mental/physical malaise, make piss-poor decisions. It’s one thing to have a character exhibit poor judgment amid a frantic situation, but a person who consciously makes one dumb choice after another is a lame crutch that only serves to keep the downward spiral in motion in the most unexciting way possible. In conjunction with “Disclaimer 1,” the Safdies have essentially penciled in a catch-all excuse for this particular character’s abysmal decision-making, and it so happens they chose my least favorite “excuse” of the lot.

That the entire film operates exclusively on those two caveats and I still enjoyed the hell out of it for nearly all one hundred thirty-four minutes is a testament to the growth of Josh and Benny’s direction: Less outwardly stylized and flashy than GOOD TIME (to its benefit, imo), but no less frenzied or kinetic, meaning it’s a much closer approximation of legitimate, real-world calamity, something adequately epitomizing a life-long panic attack. Sandler embodies his self-absorbed, self-destructive, self-[verb] persona with unflinching zeal, and watching him feverishly try to juggle seventeen things at once—continuously scored by arguing customer voices, ringing phones, and buzzing security locks—is genuinely, vicariously nerve-racking. Still can’t get behind many of his fatuous choices, though, especially those that, to my mind, have little to do with his gambling tendencies e.g. upon receiving a gemstone you believe is worth at least a million dollars, why. the. actual. fuck would you not only show it off to other people but then agree to let someone—regardless of their status—borrow it, knowing full well it’s due at an auction house the following morning? (Some will say it’s Howard’s inability to be humble and incessant need to show off, but that is lame justification.) That’s a decision that makes absolutely zero sense to me, and is inevitably the catalyst for the rest of the film, which means I spent a lot of time unnecessarily thinking about how this all could’ve been avoided. Granted, the resulting catastrophes are so superficially blistering that I’m at least partially willing to forgive the weak effort it took to get there. (And it admittedly leads to a few arresting garnishes, too, like Garrnett truly believing he has some metaphysical connection to this rock.) Didn’t like when Sandler got emotional in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES and don’t like it here, either (it’s the single weakest part of the film, imo), but the subsequent (and final) half-hour rallies like crazy, involving the best utilization of a real-life sporting event since the Mets/Dodgers game in BAD LIEUTENANT. Abrupt ending appropriately subverts the disposition on a dime (thankfully), but also seems like a minor cop-out from something more meticulously plotted or temporally consequential. But I’m nit-picking now, and viewed purely as an exercise in constantly-ratcheting tension that begins in one man’s colon and ends in his [spoiler], it succeeds pretty damn well.

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