Howard Ratner, portrayed by Adam Sandler, peers through a magnifying lens at a shimmering opal with a semblance of almost lustful excitement. His greed drowns out the indiscernible commotion and boisterous havoc of the cramped 47th Street New York City jewelry store. Ratner is unwaveringly entranced by the treasure.
This manic atmosphere continues unrelentingly throughout the entire duration of “Uncut Gems,” the latest release directed by Josh and Benny Safdie in the duo’s follow-up to 2017’s “Good Time.” Events unfold with a momentum that leaves hardly a moment to breathe until the final credits begin to roll.
In his latest appearance on the big screen, Sandler embraces the role of Ratner, the contemptible New York City jeweler for whom nothing seems to go right. Ratner is an intriguing character who is essentially defined by his vices. Incessant adultery, company debt and a gambling addiction render him difficult to sympathize with as he endures a string of disasters, largely of his own creation.
Viewer responses to the film have unsurprisingly been largely polarized. Serving as a surrogate for the audience, Idina Menzel is compelling as Dinah, Ratner’s unfortunate spouse. “You are the most annoying person I have ever met!” she exclaims to her struggling husband during one particular scene.
Sandler’s suitability for the serious role of Ratner is intriguing, considering his tenured career as a comedy actor. The goofy “Grown Ups 2” and “Jack and Jill” come to mind as films that exemplify the outlandishness personified by the traditional Sandler character. It is refreshing, then, to witness Sandler exhibit the earnest acting talents he has proven to possess in past work such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
The fictional story of “Uncut Gems” is intertwined with actual events from 2012, the year in which the film takes place. Ratner makes a series of bets on the Boston Celtics during the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals in a desperate effort to dig himself out of his precarious financial situation.
Now-retired NBA star Kevin Garnett, who played for the Celtics from 2007 to 2013, is convincing as a fictional version of himself, an occasional customer at Ratner’s store. Garnett, however, was not the Safdie brothers’ first choice for the role. Former New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire was originally intended for the role written by the Sadfies. The Sadfies were forced to rewrite the part though, after Stoudemire refused to cut his hair in accordance with its style in 2012.
Diverse themes of religion and sports betting are connected throughout the film by their shared association with superstition and the unexplained. Howard and the miners who originally quarried the gems are alike in their shared Jewish faith, despite their otherwise vastly different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. While the gem is implied to possibly hold special powers, Ratner ultimately values the stone only for its price tag, which he estimates to be in the seven figure range. The theme is accentuated during a scene in which Garnett asks Ratner how much he paid for the stone. Ratner replies that, despite his exploitative schemes, the question is misleading. What matters is that everybody gets what they want, just as long as he is taken care of first.
One could argue, though, that the true star of the film is the dizzying pace by which the 135 minute runtime flies by. The film is unrelenting, draining and exhausting, a thoughtful reflection of the chaotic and self-destructive lifestyle that Ratner embodies. Nothing turns out well for the high-strung jeweler despite intense effort, making the film’s abrupt ending all the more unexpected.
In consideration of the circumstances, though, a sudden conclusion is the only way a story like “Uncut Gems” can truly end, fictional or not. “Uncut Gems” is a cautionary tale that offers the unique experience of a lifestyle that has spiraled completely out of control. The end result is tragic and emotionally exhilarating.
Recent comments by renowned filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in regard to the current state of cinema are in direct defense of films such as this latest project by the Safdie brothers. Movies like “Uncut Gems” in contrast to big-budget, predictable blockbusters like The Marvel Cinematic Universe films,where the good guys may reliably be expected to team up and defeat the contrived alien army.
According to Scorsese, however, “cinema” is a term for films like Uncut Gems, the stories that are meant to be internalized. They reflect actual experience and offer a meaningful lens for making sense of the diverse shared struggles of the real world, no matter how onerous or unfortunate to the characters or the viewer.
Tucker Oberting is a junior in the College. The Reel Deal appears in print and online every other Friday.