Very possibly Adam Sandler’s best turn, he’s far from alone.
Casting non-traditional performers and filmed in and around bustling New York streets for authenticity’s sake, the Safdie Brothers’ (Good Time) latest sees gem dealer Howard (Sandler) finally having gotten hold of a prized opal and (hopeful) deal of a lifetime. This is only for happenstance, good luck, bad luck, trusting others and failing to do so lending him to some of the more confronting, hectic days and hours of his life.
Newcomers Kevin Garnett (the Basketball legend playing himself circa 2012) and Julia Fox as Julia De Fiore, a lover with whom the married Howard is enamoured, are both exceptional though no first-timer herein manages nearly so well as Fox; this being a star-making turn if ever 2019 had one. Lakeith Stanfield is reliably good, as is Idina Menzel as Howard’s wife who, amidst a confrontation with Howard who is desperately grasping for affection, brutally delivers the best line in a very well scripted movie.
But for it being a bit long and momentum waning between several extended, tension-heavy stretches as we wonder whether Howard is going to extricate himself from some mess, the film does well to highlight that dramatically analogous between strategic game play within a given match (as the film has it basketball) and cinematic plotting; no less so during a very consequential four quarters.
There’s a reason sport lends itself so well to movies with even grounding giving way to upsets, triumphs, surprises and thrilling denouements themselves no strangers to film in general, with the suspense of the court action here, as good as it is, playing but second fiddle to a multitude of machinations we more acutely experience in the foreground.
As accomplished as Sandler here emerges, what lets him and too the film down to some extent is an inability to overly empathise with this central figure given not simply that he is a lousy person but his (repeated) penchant to make lousy choices amidst second, third chances and opportunities at redemption. It’s one thing to have a tragic figure, but when a character overwhelmingly can’t learn or subsequently express caution they simply become much less empathetic or engaging than any filmmaker would otherwise have hoped. Regardless, the denouement is very good.
Turning to the film’s racialized depictions (and importantly lack thereof), this heavily diverse feature takes note to draw attention to that akin between African-Americans and American Jewry; the aspirations and identity-driven yearnings of Sandler’s Ratner and Garnett herein, outwardly different, mirroring each other in the most important respects. Refusing affixed characterisations while both ingraining themselves within the practices of and still seeking to rise above and beyond their respective communities, the “this is how I win” speech will no doubt prove cathartic for film and sports fanatics for years to come.
Moreover, the film’s subtle use of language is key, with typical negative phrases often used in a positive, affirming sense while particular enunciation plays key, blink and you’ll miss it functions. Sandler’s recitation of copacetic (a North American and even New York-centric word familiar to communities prominently depicted in this film) meaning ‘all good’ near sounds as if he could too very well be saying kol b’seder (the Hebrew term for “everything’s OK”); but one effective, well-placed parallel the film draws.
On this matter, it would be very easy for Sandler or the Safdie Brothers (whose Jewish father worked in New York’s gem district) to play more directly or land quick jokes off prominent stereotypes given the lead character’s profession. Instead, the film coyly dismisses racism by bare acknowledging the ubiquity of this trope, instead hilariously pivoting to more idiosyncratic, American-centric Jewish cultural touchstones or understandings to situate us in this world without perpetuating else. “What is it with you Jews and basketball?” is a particular highlight.
Uncut Gems is a stellar effort and follow-up for the directing duo, and well worth the wait it has been.
Uncut Gems is now streaming on Netflix