In 2010, miners retrieved a black opal from the Welo mine in Ethiopia. Two years later, the opal has made its way into the possession of Howard Ratner, a gambling addict who runs a jewelry store in New York City’s Diamond District. Basketball star Kevin Garnett takes an interest in the opal, asking Howard for it as a good luck charm for his next game. Howard agrees, keeping Garnett’s 2008 NBA Champion ring as collateral. Howard then proceeds to pawn the ring, kickstarting a chain of events that may very well spell his doom.
After departing from Saturday Night Live, Adam Sandler successfully made a name for himself in the 1990s and 2000s as a comedy icon. He wasn’t exactly what one would call a critical darling, but he did amass a loyal following. And then we came to the 2010s. The 2010s was, to put it lightly, not a kind decade for Adam Sandler with most of his audience growing up and abandoning his lowbrow stylings. Exacerbating matters was his general inability to update his repertoire to fit the changing attitudes of the decade, ensuring he wouldn’t gain any new fans. The year 2015 marked the release of Chris Columbus’s Pixels, which, while a modest financial success, was critically reviled and cemented his status as a walking punchline – the absolute worst fate that could befall any comedian.
It then came as a genuine shock to the entire film community when Uncut Gems saw its release at the tail end of the decade. Suddenly, the same people who wrote Mr. Sandler off as a has-been were desperately pining for an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film. The only thing more surreal than watching critics hoping for his Oscar nomination was watching them blow their stack when he failed to receive it.
Bearing this context in mind, does Adam Sandler’s performance live up to the hype? Superficially, yes, his performance is much more dynamic than what he had established as his standard. Usually, he would play an exceptionally immature, pugnacious type with no concept of social mores who nonetheless had a softer side to him. What tended to put critics off about him was the sheer repetitiveness of his characters’ arcs – or perhaps better put, his character’s arc. With very few exceptions, he essentially played the exact, same character who underwent the exact, same character development. While his gimmick was endearing at first, it quickly became grating.
Ultimately, his downfall came about due to his inability to transform himself on camera. Adam Sandler was essentially playing an exaggerated version of himself in every single role he got. It was to the point where audiences didn’t even remember his characters’ names, often referring to them as Adam Sandler. Admittedly, this isn’t bad in of itself, but unlike other typecast actors, he generally wasn’t considered charismatic enough for audiences to accept his presence in films as-is.
Uncut Gems was thus the moment when, for many people, the pieces finally fell into place. Howard Ratner is a far cry from the usual type of character Adam Sandler usually played. You will not find a better side to this individual, for it does not exist. He is an amoral jeweler and gambling addict who regularly pushes away his loved ones with his harebrained schemes. While he does occasionally apologize for his actions, he does so purely to save face – and not out of genuine regret. That he reveals he paid the Ethiopian miners $100,000 for the opal – a mere fraction of what it is actually worth – is a warning sign of how little he values the lives of others.
In terms of style, the plot of Uncut Gems largely picks up where the Safdie brothers’ previous film, Good Time, left off. It’s a fast-paced plot with an incredibly flawed protagonist who can think well on his feet, yet, to his eventual detriment, utterly fails to grasp the big picture. Howard Ratner is a character who can only see what’s in front of him. Much like an impulsive teenager, he doesn’t ever see any potential ramifications of his outrageous actions – only the potential benefits. He is the kind of person who, if he were about to perform a motorcycle stunt only to be informed that it had a higher than 99% of killing him, he would dismiss the warning and focus solely on how cool he might look while doing it.
Unsurprisingly, as a man who just doesn’t know when to walk away from the table, Howard is submerged in gambling debts. In particular, he owes $100,000 to Arno – his loan shark brother-in-law. His impulsive behavior has also driven away his now-estranged wife Dinah. Meanwhile, Howard’s much younger girlfriend, Julia, is shown to be incredibly materialistic. One would have to be in order to find someone like that worthy of their time, although interestingly she does seem to genuinely love him.
Much like in Good Time, it is one small event that causes things to spiral out of control. In this case, Kevin Garnett still holds onto the opal, which prompts Arno, along with his goons, Phil and Nico, to ambush Howard in a parking lot, humiliating the jeweler by stripping him naked. All of the setbacks in the world don’t deter Howard from attempting to come up with a bigger scheme to cover whatever misstep he previously made. This ultimately culminates on one last bet that Howard makes on one of Kevin Garnett’s games, locking Arno, Phil, and Nico in his store’s security doors. The Boston Celtics win the game, netting Howard $1.2 million. However, when he frees the three of them, Phil shoots Howard in the head. Arno protests, but Phil shoots him as well while he and Nico loot the store. Howard’s inability to think things through lead him to a quick death.
With all of these pieces in place, it sounds as though Uncut Gems should be another triumph for the Safdie brothers. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While I cannot deny Adam Sandler’s performance is remarkable, I can’t help but wonder if that is solely in comparison to his 2010s canon. Don’t get me wrong – it is assuredly far more dynamic than any of those performances. The problem is that he was to the point where a middling or even a slightly bad film could’ve broken his losing streak, which is precisely the point we reach with Uncut Gems.
The Safdie brothers’ primary influence in the form of Martin Scorsese, who served as their film’s executive producer alongside Emma Tillinger Koskoff, is apparent in Uncut Gems – particularly in how they characterize their incredibly flawed protagonist. The problem is that while Adam Sandler’s performance is the film’s greatest strength, it happens to be the basis for its primary weakness as well. Mr. Scorsese had a knack for conceiving similarly flawed casts, but there were a few mitigating factors that this film does not possess. Because the average person would not sympathize with murderers, Mr. Scorsese wisely never swept their bad traits under a rug. While he was able to illicit sympathy for some highly ignoble people, the key is that his films’ integrity seldom depended on it. To its detriment, Uncut Gems does.
To be completely fair, the Safdie brothers do not hide what a terrible person Howard is, but the problem is that they oftentimes try to have their cake and eat it. They go out of their way to display Howard’s flaws while also giving him softer moments with his children. If it was intended to humanize him, then it doesn’t work because of two reasons. To begin with, it stretches the suspension of disbelief. If someone this detestable had kids, I highly doubt they would act so amiably around them. This is addressed in the film in how Dinah acts towards him, but it isn’t enough. Secondly, his actions are so profoundly stupid, impulsive, greedy, or some combination thereof that when Phil shoots him square in the forehead, it’s difficult to care about his fate. While there are good narratives revolving around casts more blatantly unlikable than that of Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ inability to stay in a lane results in a jarring disconnect.
What’s especially bad about this is that the Safdie brothers deftly avoided a potential disconnect with Good Time. Connie was absolutely not a sympathetic character, but the film accepted that fact. Instead, what made the film such a treat was seeing how far he could take his harebrained schemes – particularly once his misbegotten attempts at solving problems caused at least ten new ones to crop up like weeds. True, the character wasn’t sympathetic, but the appeal lied in seeing what he would do next. When Howard is shot through the head, it’s nigh-impossible to care about anything.
Presenting Howard as such an irredeemably bad person while also attempting to get audiences to care about his death wasn’t, admittedly, an impossible task, but it would’ve required a far different set of circumstances to make it work. As it stands, Howard’s sudden departure from this mortal coil was the film’s only logical conclusion. If you can’t make the audiences care about your narrative, you have failed them on a fundamental level. If they know how it’s going to end before any of the characters within the narrative do, then it defeats the purpose of getting invested entirely.
I could envision someone making the argument that Uncut Gems is worth watching solely for the novelty of Adam Sandler’s stellar performance. While his performance is indeed great, there is a twofold problem with that venture. To begin with, it is in service of an underdeveloped story. If the story isn’t great, then it doesn’t matter how good the acting performances are. Secondly, the novelty of witnessing a good Adam Sandler performance dates the film to when it was released. Sure, it was impressive seeing him get out of the downward spiral and turn in a legitimately great performance, but without that context, it’s plain to see Uncut Gems is what is referred to in some circles as a dancing bear, which is to say, a work priding itself in a certain gimmick rather than its actual content.
As flawed as it is, Uncut Gems isn’t really a bad film as much as it is an overhyped one. It’s perfectly serviceable for Adam Sandler fans who want to see an actual good performance out of him – especially if they’re used to his miserable 2010s output. Regardless, had I not seen them as soon as they came out, I actually would have assumed Uncut Gems predated the Safdie brothers’ previous effort, Good Time, for the latter is a much more sophisticated product. In that film, they proved more than capable of capturing that Scorsese-like energy and making it their own. With Uncut Gems, on the other hand, the Safdie brothers regressed from paying homage to Martin Scorsese to doing a bad Martin Scorsese impression. It was a battle the Safdie brothers were doomed to lose when they wound up competing against Mr. Scorsese himself. His 2019 film, The Irishman, was a late-career gem that perfectly encapsulated his impressive body of work. A paste imitation is never as good as the real gem, and it’s even less impressive when the latter is being offered in tandem at the same price.
Final Score: 5.5/10