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.
By 2019, American AAA gaming productions suffered from a litany of problems, but if an auteur ever found themselves in the driver’s seat, there was one common issue between them: a desire to recreate Hollywood’s success. Ever since the release of Metal Gear Solid in 1998, the primary method of telling stories in AAA games had been through non-interactive cutscenes. While this did signpost to future artists that video games can have good stories, it also eventually reinforced the idea they were inherently inferior to films. As a possible response to this, independent developers began to gain prominence in the 2010s, doling out titles that brought back idioms the mainstream had long abandoned and recontextualized them with modern design sensibilities. To have games unapologetic about what they were standing opposite the diffident, Hollywood-inspired AAA model revitalized a medium that had been stagnating for quite some time.
How does any of this relate back to Uncut Gems? The answer is admittedly abstract, but I believe Uncut Gems can be used as an unconventional benchmark when comparing contemporary independent filmmakers with their game developing counterparts. Independent game developers had found a way to push the medium’s storytelling potential without sacrificing its unique properties – Undertale, OneShot, and Papers, Please being some of the most exemplary efforts to do so. This isn’t to say the independent gaming scene was completely immune to the medium’s lack of self-confidence. For want of the extensive resources available to a AAA developer, the 2010s saw the rise of the environmental narrative game. They were referred to as walking simulators by detractors due to their lack of gameplay or player character agency. While the artists’ intents were noble, the environmental narrative game petered out as the decade came to a close – seen as many as a malformed movement akin to the FMV (full-motion video) wave of the 1990s.
Nonetheless, one thing was perfectly clear. Independent game developers could be counted on to innovate and blaze the trail for new avenues of storytelling. If they ever used past idioms, it was either with the intent of updating them to better fit modern design sensibilities or exploring viable concepts big-name developers had abandoned. Conversely, independent filmmakers were in the exact same position the American AAA gaming industry had occupied throughout the 2010s, being every bit as guilty of trying to recreate past successes as opposed to starting new movements – discounting the similarly malformed mumblecore genre. With the cinematic indie scene defining itself with the same lack of ambition as the risk-adverse products of the AAA gaming industry, it was obvious which of the two mediums had the clear artistic vision.
That lack of vision was what ultimately sunk a lot of A24 products with many of them coming across as cheap substitutes for past successes. Hereditary was a less interesting version of Rosemary’s Baby while High Life is what you would get if 2001: A Space Odyssey lacked any kind of artistic sincerity. Meanwhile, Uncut Gems could charitability be described as Martin Scorsese-lite. It’s especially jarring when you realize Good Time managed to capture that Scorsese-like energy and shape it into something unique and contemporary. 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.
Indeed, watching Uncut Gems back-to-back with The Irishman reveals that the students had a long way to go before they could surpass the master. Five decades into his career, Mr. Scorsese still demonstrated a remarkable ability to get people to feel for the lowest of the low. That the Safdie brothers were unable to get a significant portion of their audience to care for the less blatantly flawed Howard Ratner proved there was still a gulf between themselves and Mr. Scorsese in terms of talent. So, while Good Time stands as an overlooked highlight of 2017, Uncut Gems falls in line with the average A24 film – vaguely provocative, yet paradoxically not the least bit avant-garde.
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 a flawed story. If the story is flawed, then the goodwill from the acting is for naught. 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.
Plus, there’s the fact that, speaking subjectively, there was no easier way to win over critics in the late 2010s than by appearing in – or in the case of Paul Schrader, who had also spent a majority of the twenty-first century in a creative rut, directing – an A24 film. You could have had the worst track record imaginable, but by being involved in an A24 film, the critics would instantly forgive you. Had Justin Bieber starred in the lead role of an A24 film around that time, I guarantee there would have been countless articles claiming he was always an underrated genius and his longtime detractors failed to understand him.
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. Still, his performance, admirable though it may be, is more of a testament to his own talents than those of the writers. Like many other A24 productions, the film comes across as an anemic imitation of a standard it can’t possibly live up to. It’s especially disappointing how it came from a creative team who really should’ve known better by this point. Not unlike Paul Schrader with his lightweight comeback film First Reformed, the Safdie brothers made the fatal error of becoming followers after demonstrating the ability to be leaders.
Final Score: 5/10