Watching “Uncut Gems” is like reliving an awful Thanksgiving where everyone at the table is constantly talking over each other. It’s stressful, induces anxiety, and is full of tension. It follow an electric jeweler, Howard, who makes bad decision after bad decision. He sells prescious gems and gambles with the money he makes in profit to try to multiply his earnings. He’s addicted to the adrenaline rush of sales and gambling, and his addiction to living in high stakes burns his life to the ground. What’s remarkable is that despite portraying a horribly unlikeable and delusional character, Sandler still manages to exude charm onto the screen in an excellent dramatic performance.
“Uncut Gems” opens with a colonoscopy, which now that I think about it actually fits the tone quite well. I won’t start listing adjectives, because now they could form some undesirable mental images. Suffice to say, the film isn’t particularly enjoyable. It’s well made by the Safdie brothers, well-acted, and the sound mix works to great effect. The dialogue hardly matters because everyone is constantly talking over each other. I don’t think I could quote a single line. The film is well shot by Darius Khondji, who uses the hustle and bustle of New York to create an anxiety-inducing setting. He also portrays the city in a way that isn’t seen in most films today – the chaos and scum of the streets juxtaposed with the glamour of the interiors.
“Everything I do is not going right.” So says Howard who can’t seem to escape the dark abyss of his own making. He tries to pay off his gambling debts by playing increasingly risky bets. His jewelry shop is a tiny place with the atmosphere of a full-fledged circus. He has two buzzing doors that don’t work half the time (perhaps intentionally?). They don’t seem to help keep out the goons to whom he owes money. One of Howard’s clients is Kevin Garnett, who takes interest in a recently acquired opal from Ethiopia, which Howard plans on putting up for auction at a hugely inflated price. Howard tells Garnett how he feels connected to the Ethiopian Jews who dig up the opals, and his story is so catching that Garnett begins to feel the same type of connection to the stone. He asks if he can borrow it for his next game for good luck, and Howard obliges.
This is the first of many terrible choices that Howard will make over the course of the film. Practically everyone in his life seems to hate him for his inability to find some sort of stability. His wife seethes with hatred for him. He drags family members into his gambling schemes. He puts up his mistress in a city apartment and gets offended when he finds her with other men. Most of the characters seem reprehensible. Keith Williams Richards plays one of the goons following Howard around town, and has the perfect voice and mannerisms for the part. He must have smoked a pack of cigarettes every day in preparation.
The Safdie Brothers are clearly comfortable in dealing with discomfort, and they expect us to be able to embrace it. Six people walked out during my showing, and I don’t blame them. The film is a tumultuous experience. We all already have so much stress in our lives; why should we subject ourselves to a stressful “entertainment” experience? Past the brazen sound mix and practically breathable taxi fumes is the metaphorical aspect of the opal. “Uncut Gems” is a classic story at its center, about a man transfixed by the beauty and potential fortune of his gems that seem to hold hypnotic powers. I’m reminded of Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” “Uncut Gems” is a modern take on the tale, passing off bass for poetry and yelling for wisdom. It’s worth the experience, but I wouldn’t care to revisit it.