Perhaps the most enjoyable film to be this relentlessly unpleasant to watch, Uncut Gems has the sound and feel of a hurried fork stabbing at and missing food while on a blind date your mom set up. It’s Panic Attack: The Movie, featuring an actor with a stupid face that is genetically designed to make you want violence to happen to it. That’s not an opinion. That’s almost exactly what Idina Menzel explicitly says in this movie. If the voice of Elsa says your face is dumb, your face is dumb. Those are the rules.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler)—perhaps the most deliciously on-the-nose name for a shitbag character—is a jeweler and degenerate gambler. He spends what little time he has that’s not taken up running away from people trying to collect on his debts sleeping with his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox). As all adulterous, greedy weasels do, Howard has a plan to make a big score. This involves exploiting a group of Jewish-African miners by fleecing them out of a stone filled with uncut black opals.
However, Howard is stupider than he is miserly. He tries to impress NBA star Kevin Garnett by showing him the piece. Garnett becomes obsessed with it, demanding Howard let him borrow it overnight for good luck during a playoff game. This sets off a chain of what is either bad luck, quality karma, or divine smiting, depending on whether you think a sentient God would intentionally make a face like Adam Sandler’s.
Writer Ronald Bronstein and writers/directors Josh and Benny Safdie offer a plot that basically asks “Okay, but what would make this situation even worse?” Virtually every scene features people yelling at one another or talking loudly at the same time. This is somehow made even more anxiety inducing by the songs in Daniel Lopatin’s score, which are basically trippy space jams. Why is it more awful to grind out a scene with violent gangsters trapped inside a cage when that scene is set to Eastern meditation music? You’ll have to ask the Safdie brothers the alchemy behind that one.
One of the best things about Uncut Gems is how well it steers into the palpable unlikability of its lead character. Too often, films with dirtbag protagonists encourage the audience to sympathize with them. That cannot be done with Howard Ratner. He exists beyond sympathy. He exists as a distillation of all the gross personality traits no human should have. The tension doesn’t come from a kinship with the movie’s subject but from a desire to escape the cinematic cage you voluntarily walked into.
At a time when so many films seem painfully contrived to provide only expected reactions, the discomfort of Uncut Gems feels gloriously new. Repeat viewings likely reveal dense, heady themes about Judaism, cosmic purpose, and the depravity of capitalism. Yet, the thought of sitting through that mental meat grinder again is tantamount to intentionally watching any other Adam Sandler movie for the first time on purpose. Once is enough to declare Uncut Gems unpleasurably brilliant.
Grade = A