The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. Croce, Kelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Kelley and Fern,
When one is in the thick of a film festival, surrounded on all sides by movie after movie after movie, the caffeine jolt of coffee may not be enough to keep up your energy; you may need a film that throttles you. 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.
I only wish that Steven Soderbergh thought his audience for The Laundromat might also be skeptical. Alas, this film based on Jake Berstein's book about the Panama Papers, adapted by Scott Z. Burns, has the smarmy smack of the most confident liberal address, so pleased with its mission to elucidate the tax havens and shell companies exposé of that data leak. Animated title cards describing generalized “secrets” structure this ungainly combination of exposition—delivered in direct address to the camera by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, playing the partners of Mossack Fonseca & Co., the law firm at the center of the leak—and illustration, where we see several vignette short stories about how the tendrils of these nefarious tax and legal dodges reach out of the off-shore accounts and into the real world. These include how a mass drowning during a boat capsizing in fact is not insured because of Russian-doll-like LLC ownership of the provider; how an African millionaire bribes his daughter with ownership of one of his many shell companies when she finds out he is sleeping with her friend; and how a British businessman tries to launder Chinese money through Europe, but ends up instead being killed in order to cover up local corruption.
All of these are directed with tongue slightly in cheek by Soderbergh, who creates an tone of condescending explication in these stories, none of which seem particularly remarkable either unto themselves or as a group. That may sort of be the point: Off-shore accounts and money laundering is boring, so where do these non-criminal yet deeply unethical practices touch the real world? Thus we see a American tragedy underlined by the lack of financial culpability—Meryl Streep embodies the unimpeachable goodness of folksy American outrage that companies are dodging liability in the drowning death of her husband—and we see how the international rich use their liquid funds to bribe their way through the world; and we see that the Chinese are not immune to the lure of foreign finance loopholes. I expect in the generality of these observations that none of them are new to most audiences. An obvious comparison point here is Adam McKay’s The Big Short, which whatever its flaws was truly remarkable in the extremity of its didactic approach to explaining the 2008 financial crash. With The Laundromat, Soderbergh and Burns pull back from McKay’s overboard approach, which lessens the amount of information parlayed and allows the seams to show more raggedly: The hammy swagger of Oldman and Banderas, sipping martinis in shimmering tuxedos as they talk with playful arrogance about what they do, offers little insight into the psychology of such puppet masters, and fails to suggest just how dodgy (or common-place) their business of tax dodging really is. Meanwhile, the international stories, such as they are, barely register as dramas and instead have the bland quality of a dutifully illustrated factual occurrence.
Occasionally, Soderbergh’s on-set ingenuity with staging is vividly clear: A grim conversation in a bar booth between the captain of the capsized boat and the owner of the resort that operated it is exemplary in how set lighting, shot changes, and sharp editing make a rote scene gripping in its execution. “I wanted to buy what I needed for less, what’s wrong with that?” the owner asks. But that the captain is played by Robert Patrick and the owner David Schwimmer underscores another critical flaw of the film: the too noticeable casting can’t decide whether its name actors are there to embody characters in a drama, or are there to stand-out self-reflexively. I sense the latter is the case, that Streep and Oldman, et cetera, are there to double-down on the audience’s awareness they’re watching a cinematic illustration of a technically complicated, frequently confusing scandal of global finance. The film suggests, as The Big Short did before it, that we need actors to reveal these stories, because otherwise we might not care and may never learn.
In his distinctive latter-day digital filmmaking one can feel Soderbergh experimenting with this practice as his films go along. A film like Unsane or Side Effects feels like its being workshopped as its being made, frequently for the best: the movies have are live-wire quality as if as a whole story and approach were never fully conceived until the shoot was complete. (This is opposite to the sense of the work of Soderbergh’s great contemporary, David Fincher, whose movies feel pre-conceived to the point of ossification.) In his lean, investigatory films, Soderbergh works with the reality before him, rarely using the studio and instead shooting in real spaces with little artifice beyond bold angle choices and star casting. Rather than build a story from nothing, Soderbergh re-arranges the world for revelation: the movement of money, the politics of the body. This approach at its best can create a sense of cerebral dramatic exploration of an idea: A movie thinking its way through a story situation which is embodying a political inquiry. In this sense, The Laundromat is very much in keeping with what came before it, better films like Contagion and The Informant! But despite its pretense to explication, The Laundromat’s wavering—between exposition and illustration, between sardonic humor and real events, between accusation and storytelling, between outrage and irony, between a movie and an essay film—suggests a lack of sureness in the product, and uncertainly in what shape or indeed goal the film should take. It’s the first film of this normally spry filmmaker that feels old.