There ought to be some analogous maxim for the if “it bends, it’s funny, if it breaks, it’s not funny,” aphorism once famously spoke by Alan Alda in a classic New York movie, but applied to movies with unrelenting, unbearable, nerve-rattling tension. Because by all rights, filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie’s latest New York sweaty, heart-attack inducer, “Uncut Gems,” a gritty, tragicomedy thriller, ought to snap in half. For over two hours, this frantic, frenetic cacophony of sound, music, and overlapping, sometimes hard-to-discern dialogue keeps rising and crescendoing to nearly absurdly comical levels. Editing law of physics would normally dictate that a restless, roving, high-wire act movie like this—which feels like a wild injection of pure cocaine— would eventually shatter and collapse under the weight of its own pressure. But this masterful symphony of tension building, somehow never does.
Held together by a hilarious, manic, tour-de-force performance by Adam Sandler—one of his very best which now ranks among “Punch Drunk Love” and those all-time touchstones (update your rankings asap)—the Safdies somehow outdo their last, similarly chaotic picture “Good Time,” and create a new “Mean Streets” for their own generation. No one does a New York grift and street hustle like the Safdies and while the material, tone, and tenor are fairly similar to their last film—another electric and grueling portrait of desperation under stressful circumstances with the clock ticking— “Uncut Gems” still manages to be bigger and more ambitious in scope. Appropriately executive-produced by Martin Scorsese— a spiritual handoff to his raw, early days of filmmaking— “Uncut Gems” is an insane ride with no respite that will grind your senses down to their last nerve.
Set in the diamond district of New York City, Howard Ratner (Sandler), a self-destructive, compulsive risktaker, is way underwater. A charismatic jewelry store owner and dealer, Howard is in crisis, and his life is falling apart. His debts are out of control and several loan sharks are swimming around sensing the blood in the water. His marriage to the long-suffering Dinah (Idina Menzel, terrific) is basically over, but they’re keeping up appearances for the children, for now. Howard’s life is one scam after another, and a continuous act of precarious juggling that he maybe actually gets off on, thrives on. Homelife is somehow balanced with a girlfriend Julia (a fetching Julia Fox), who also works as one of his jewelry clerks.
His tiny, cramped, unruly jewelry store is constantly bumrushed with characters, many of them African-American rappers or sports figures thanks to Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a hustler paid to sway clientele to come to Howard’s place. One of those clients that helps get the already-racing plot further in motion is NBA player Kevin Garnett (playing himself). He quickly becomes enamored with a black opal diamond that Howard gets his hands on through the Ethiopia black market and shady methods. Worth millions in Howard’s estimation, this near-magical, diamond—depicted as having magically hypnotic qualities in unlikely cosmic sequences that feel like they’re lifted out of a celestial Terrence Malick-made sequence — is the supposed solution to all of the jeweler’s problems, but there’s one complication. The all-star baller is so infatuated with the gem, he wants to keep it with him for inspiration in upcoming games which complicates everything while goons are breathing down Howard’s neck.
Howard owes everyone money and everyone is looking to collect and bust some skulls in the process, if necessary. The heat is around the corner at every turn, and thanks to claustrophobic and predatory telephoto cinematography by Darius Khonji, the camera feels like its stalking the man’s footsteps. Howard’s unwieldy bets upon bets, micro-loans, sidepiece hustles, and tricky grifts with plenty of vigs on top, would make a normal man feel like they’re drowning ten times over. But Howard is seemingly an addict to this level of action, the juice, all of it all —he seems to have a Ph.D. in high-level risk management at the street level, getting off on the peril and amphetamine-y rush. Howard treats debts like the thrill of auto-erotic asphyxiation and “Uncut Gems” is nearly pornographic in its edging tautness.
Even one of Howard’s family members Arno (a menacing Eric Bogosian) has sicced rabid thugs (Keith Williams Richards) on Howard to get back what they’re owed. Filled with a terrific cast, Judd Hirsch, musician The Weeknd—playing himself at a private party, black-lit to Safdies perfection—talk show host Mike Francesca, and more “Uncut Gems” absolutely crackles with the authentic energy of New York, and the underhanded characters, mugs, and goons that inhabit it.
Electric from minute one, on top of the freewheeling, freefalling staging, and Robert Altman-esque discordance of five conversations happening at once, the Safdie’s movie greatly benefits once again from a searing, perspiring pulsating score by Oneohtrix Point Never’s score (aka Daniel Lopatin). It should be said, as exhausting as it can be, the neo-noir thriller can be really ridiculously funny in its dark humor (Philip Roth would likely be proud of the tragic Jewish-American hilarity of some of these scenarios).
Whether inside the mines of Ethiopia, inside Howard’s rectum during a colonoscopy, or inside the mystic gems of a black opal diamond, “Uncut Gems” is never afraid to push the viewer down deeper, darker into the abyss its character is falling into—or chasing after for the greatest orgasm ever, it’s hard to tell which.
Dizzying, but engrossing and entertaining, “Uncut Gems” is not for the faint of heart. The Safdie’s arguably don’t know how to make a movie that isn’t dialed up to 11 and isn’t lodged in your throat, but how glorious and unsettling that wildness can be.
“There’s so much tension and pain and misery and craziness here,” Alan Alda said in that New York movie about crimes and misdemeanors and the preposterous of our existence. The transgressions here in “Uncut Gems” are unforgivable in the end, and so wild, and jaw-droppingly unbelievable, ultimately, all you can do is hope to not choke on all the disturbing laughs. [A-]