LFF 2019: Uncut Gems – Review

Release Date – January 2020, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 2 hours 15 minutes, Directors – Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

A New York jewellery dealer (Adam Sandler) makes a number of high-stakes bets that could lead him to a huge windfall, however if won he must get around a number of forces to get the money.

Sitting down ready for Uncut Gems, the latest feature from Josh and Benny Safdie – following on from their acclaimed thriller Good Time – me and another critic began to discuss the career of Adam Sandler so far. She stated that “he’s just a lazy actor”, something which I myself agreed with slightly – it does seem like most of his choices in films have been those where he can play the same man-children and go on holiday at the same time. But also the point is in place that while Sandler’s audience grew up he, or at least his characters, never have. And while his comedy performances have often been relatively the same his rare dramatic performances have something else to be said for. Punch Drunk Love, which I consider to be his best film, and indeed performance, is a fantastic piece of work. And while I wasn’t a fan of the film many praised his performance in The Meyerowitz Stories. Sandler can do drama – proven by the fact that there’s already a fairly strong Oscar campaign around him for Best Leading Actor for this specific performance, even though when the offer first came to him to do this film in 2009 he rejected it.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York jewellery dealer always looking to make more money, which as sprouted a slight gambling obsession. He buys to sell and sells to gamble to make more money, often through very high-stakes and unlikely odds. In fact much of the film revolves around a number of Howard’s highly specific bets, which could lead him to one of the biggest windfall’s of his life. However, there are various groups against him, some he owes money or products to, others who simply want something from him that he sells in his small , brightly lit store – contrasting with the dark nature of his office.

While initially it seems like Howard/ Sandler does nothing but shout and drop the f bomb, as the narrative begins to develop, and actually show itself, his performance does too. Forming into something much more complex and detailed, bringing the viewer into a world of high risk tension and unpredictability. The Safdie Brothers – who write and direct this feature – play with lingering on the nature of the film, how the narrative could go absolutely anywhere, not helped by their frantic, almost dizzying central figure. Forming a large, swirling cocktail of energy, stress and tension that almost leads the viewer into a sweat as they try to keep up with everything that’s going on, and the forces that surround the, what could be referred to as, antihero – if he even is any form of hero – of the film.

Amongst all of this there’s plenty of room for dashes of humour to be spread throughout. While the more direct attempts at gags don’t quite work the blunter, more conversational, quick-witted bursts do get a response. And that’s not to say that the other elements of comedy don’t always work, on particular scene set in an auction room is one of the pure highlights of the film, and allows Sandler to almost unleash the closest thing to his standard style of comedy, while still managing to raise some laughs through the desperate tension and panic of the scene slightly twisted for comedic effect. In fact it seems that once it properly kicks in there are almost no faults in Sandler’s performance, and the general flow of the film; the only thing he can’t seem to be able to do is dramatic/ serious crying.

Throughout the film Sandler’s character states “It doesn’t matter until the final minute” – in reference to a basketball game that he has multiple bets on. However, when it comes to the general shape and feel of the film this couldn’t be further from the case. Carrying on from the tension and rapid nature of Good Time the Safdie Brothers form a world of fast-paced nerves. Everything feels risky or as if it could lead down an even darker route. All this combining to create a purely enjoyable ride. The comparison of a film to a rollercoaster is definitely overused, however if there is one film for it to be used it’s this one. A genuine thrill ride that’s sure to get the heart racing and the viewer almost breathless by the end of it.

At the end of the screening, as the credits had rolled for a minute or two, the critic I was talking to beforehand turned to me and as we were discussing our thoughts on the film she said “I think that’s the best thing he’s ever done”. While I still think that Punch Drunk Love is Sandler’s best film and performance this is definitely close, and maybe on a re-watch would be better, it strikes as a film that rewards re-watches, potentially having missed a lot from being caught up in the racing nature of things as they quickly unfold. What starts off as a potentially questionable selection of ideas and a shouty, sweary performance, turns into one of the most tense thrill rides in years and a wonderful performance from Sandler. After all these years what he’s needed is character and direction – who would have guessed?

After the first 10-15 minutes the Safdie Brothers immediately snap their fingers and the audience are in for a brilliantly tense and unique experience. There’s nothing quite like it narrative and there certainly won’t be anything quite like it in terms of scale and stress any time soon. Wonderfully written and directed, just see Sandler’s performance for proof of this.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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