If you want to be grabbed by the throat, then I’ve got just the movie for you: Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems. Like the brothers’ last two features, Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2017), it’s a showboating immersion into a gritty but resiliently existent side of New York that is nowadays rarely set to film. And like Good Time, their collision of Robert Pattinson with a borough-based B-film, Uncut Gems is driven by the monomania of its protagonist, Harold Ratner, and the stunt-casting appeal of the actor who plays him: Adam Sandler. Ratner is a Jewish jeweler in Midtown’s Diamond District and another addict looking for a rush—in this case, the rush of moving capital around with dangerous risks at the hope of a big pay off.
The film opens with Ratner in debt and in panic, and its anxiety only climbs higher from there. Ratner parlays debt into prospects, gains money, lays bets, pawns this, trades that, dodging heavies looking the vig, and chasing after a rare black opal lent early on to Kevin Garnett. (Ratner being a compulsive gambler, he adores basketball, which leads to a climax literally hinging on whether the 2012 Celtics win a game or not.) A fraught amusement park ride through midtown, Uncut Gems is less geographically antic and exploratory than Good Time, but even better at finding locations, actors, and milieu that ground this genre story in a tactile subculture of New York City. The production has a field day with the gleaming Diamond District shops, construction scaffolding, Ratner’s Long Island suburban luxury home, and his mistress’s midtown flat, clad head to toe in black leather and mirrors. Uncut Gems is filled with the details and textures that most other movies set in New York miss. While it’s hard not to think of William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Ratner’s panting needs and frenetic movement around just a few Manhattan blocks at the risk of his career and his life are most reminiscent of poor publicity man Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success.
Cinematographer Dharius Khondji, shooting on 35mm, works great beauty from the midtown streets, the jeweler’s glass, and the high-key lighting of Ratner’s store, hidden as it is several floors up and behind two security doors in some anonymous skyscraper: in long frenetic bursts we glimpse the wheeling-and-dealing of a world usually unseen, one that rushes past you on the street without explanation and plunges deep within unmarked city buildings, its secrets kept within. Daniel Lopatin returns with another out-of-time electronic soundtrack of swelling synths, but this score doesn’t channel the headspace of a thrill-seeker, as it does with Pattinson in Good Time, but rather keeps a distance and connotes not only the rush Ratner needs to live within, but the disjointed alienation of that addiction. Sandler’s shambling, propulsive performance hinges mostly on his constant raging, a cornerstone of some of his comedy that Paul Thomas Anderson also mined for Punch-Drunk Love with a bit more modulation. What the Safdies do get so right with Sandler is the orgasmic—quite literally, in fact—ecstasy Ratner attains when he feels his bets are paying off. A car ride taken as he receives good news transforms into a masturbatory triumph, sublimity momentarily achieved.
At the very worst moment of the very worst day, juggling multiple debts and threats of violence, Ratner is asked if he’s having a good time. Even then he quickly, sheepishly admits: yes. He strings connection to connection, debt to debt, parlaying one risk into another. But when the film leaves midtown, stops a moment and gathers its breath, its thinness and the tiredness of its conceit is apparent. For a while, energy and motion cover this up, but the further we get from sidelong impressions of the Diamond District, the more the film is like every other movie about a deadbeat welcher: The exasperated wife (Idina Menzel, saddled with a role so boring that her more than justified exasperation with her husband is tedious rather than sympathetic), threats to their family, a mistress (Julia Fox) who is a sexy doormat fantasy more than a person. The jeweler's relationships and success with affluent black customers (an aside reveals Harold was among the first to supply rappers with pieces for their videos) are tantalizing but under-explored. Critically, we don’t see Howard Ratner ever at his best. We see the man juggle his responsibilities but never his success—how did this obviously weak-willed and sniveling businessman ever make it this far, keep his store—let alone his knee caps—or have a wife and kids? It’s impossible to imagine, as the grand commotion of Uncut Gems—and it is grand, thrilling and frequently hilarious—suggests this is a normal state of affairs and not the flailing climax of a sequence of bad luck or heightened risks.
The audience’s possible ambivalence not just to Ratner but the film as a whole is ingeniously evoked in the film’s climax, which has us watch the gambler watching a crucial basketball game on which rides all his many obligations. Watching it along with him are his enraged debtors, stuck between the security glass of Ratner’s store, forced to watch both the game—with their money on the line—and Ratner’s unhinged swings from fury to agony to ecstasy as it proceeds. The debtors couldn’t care less about what they’re watching; for Ratner, it is the most important thing in the world. Here, the Safdies brilliantly allow the audience to either share Harold’s gambling rush, or step back from his mania with skeptical exasperation.