By Troy Hasselman, February 4 2020 —
There is no way Uncut Gems should work. A movie anchored by Adam Sandler, who’s spent the last decade making forgettable paycheque films with his old Saturday Night Live buddies, backed up by a cast of mostly non-actors — including a former NBA star, a sports radio host alongside an autograph seeker and his brother, in a story about sports gambling. But Uncut Gems works. It works incredibly and precisely because it shouldn’t work, it’s a movie about gambling where every thing that makes it exceptional is a gamble itself.
The movie takes place in 2012 and revolves around Howard Ratner — a neurotic, megalomaniacal gambling addict who runs a diamond showroom in Manhattan and owes money to seemingly everyone, including $100,000 to his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). His shop is visited by Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, played by himself, who becomes entranced by a valuable Ethiopian opal that Ratner has on display and takes it to use as a good luck charm in a playoff series. From there the plot, and Howard’s life, spins out chaotically and intricately. There’s his turbulent relationship with his mistress, alongside his crumbling marriage. There’s the numerous Diamond District regulars that Howard encounters in the film, there’s a bookie played by sports radio mouthpiece Mike Francesa and The Weeknd shows up.
The non-actors add an intriguing layer to every scene of the film. There’s the previously mentioned autograph seeker and his brother who play a hilarious and intimidating duo that Howard owes money to. There’s the cartoonish Tri-state archetype gambler played by Diamond District regular Wayne Diamond who has the look of a rock singer that’s been trapped in a tanning bed since 1975. There’s The Weeknd playing the scumbag persona that his music embodied in 2012. Entrepreneur, model and former-dominatrix Julia Fox plays Howard’s mistress. But perhaps, the most impressive and important non-actor role is from Kevin Garnett who ties together the movies most important plot line through the same sheer intensity that he showed in his two decades in the NBA.
Sandler himself is incredible in the film. He takes on the neuroticism, rage and mania that embodies his comedic work but with all of these traits turned up to 10. He brings a sinister turn to the comedic persona that he’s crafted throughout his career and becomes the perfect vessel for Uncut Gems’ high anxiety plotline as his character goes from dizzying heights to stupefying lows and back again. If there were any justice in this world Adam Sandler would be the front-runner for best actor at the Academy Awards this year, but giving an Oscar to the guy that made Jack & Jill is something the world just isn’t ready for.
Uncut Gems’ anxious atmosphere is added to by the incredible score done by ambient composer Daniel Lopatin — better known as Oneohtrix Point Never — where the tones and blips add to the persistent turmoil in Ratner’s life, making the music another secondary character. Undercutting the soundtrack is the constant cross-chatter that fills so many scenes of the movie where there are multiple audible conversations going on underneath the film’s dialogue, adding to the chaos.Uncut Gems is an anxiety-ridden fever dream and another masterpiece film in a year already filled with them.