There always has been and there ever will be a tremendous fascination in watching a human being self-destruct. Call it morbid curiosity, moral pathos or shock of recognition, but the vision of a man hitting the skids through his own fatal flaws — Cain, Achilles, Tiger Woods, Richard Nixon — exerts a gravitational pull on our collective attention. It is the essence of tragedy: Glad that’s not me, that could be me and, on the deepest level, that is me.
Watching the downward trajectory of someone blind to their own imminent smash-up, whether in life or in art, is also wildly anxiety provoking, and it’s here that the Safdie brothers, co-directors Benny and Josh, have planted a cinematic flag. Their 2017 film Good Time, about the aftermath of a botched bank robbery, is a masterpiece of adrenalized claustrophobia — a hyper-real panic attack that can’t draw a breath without further fucking itself.
The latest Safdie offering, Uncut Gems, is both more and less of the same. It lacks their previous film’s hallucinogenic, rapid-fire aesthetic of millennial paranoia, swapping it out for a more sustained and deliberate (but no less anxious) gaze into its antihero’s unraveling. In this regard, it’s no wonder that one of the executive producers on this one is Martin Scorsese, to whom the Safdie’s owe a massive debt with a seriously jacked-up vig.
To wit, the smarmily charming, chronically self-sabotaging Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) in Uncut Gems is an updated, older and paunchier version of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and if you know that 1973 film, you know to a large extent where Uncut Gems is going, and how it feels to get there. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, though the familiar territory does rob the film of that edgy sense of discovery that was Good Time’s greatest strengths.
At the center of the story is the titular uncut gem, a rare black opal unearthed in an African mine by Ethiopian Jews. Ratner, a shady jeweler in New York’s Diamond District, gets his hands on a load of these gems embedded in a chunk of rock, with the plan of auctioning them off to pay off a loan before the sharks get him.
When former NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (yes, the real Garnett) enters his store, Ratner convinces him of its almost supernatural significance, setting off a weird chain of events in which Ratner — constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, and placing outrageous sports bets — hopes to strike it rich.
Subplots proliferate, each one an etch on Ratner’s character: There’s Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), a con man who becomes Ratner’s go-between with Garnett; his falling-apart marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel); his affair with his imperturbably loyal girlfriend and employee Julia (Julia Fox); and his pursuit by Arno (Eric Bogosian), a low-level gangster who also happens to be Ratner’s brother-in-law. Judd Hirsch is great at Gooey, Ratner’s long-suffering father-in-law.
A Jewish man-child adrift in the dregs of the American Dream, Sandler’s Ratner is — like, often, Sandler himself — a figure whose attractive qualities are nearly indistinguishable from the repulsion he inspires. I’ve never found the man all that funny, but I am compelled by the sliver of nihilism that seems to lurk in his character, and that darkness here suits him well. Despite his petty villainy and emotional cowardice, you can almost root for the guy to hit it big, all the while understanding that the idea of hitting it big is the root of his problem, and ours.
Uncut Gems spools out like an Old Testament parable updated for our late-capitalist collapse, a timely tale of greed, envy and idolatry which — like that chunk of mined rock — hides an eternally glimmering truth inside its jagged exterior. (Broadway Metro)