The Safdie Brothers’ latest film is like being punched repeatedly in the face while being spun round on a fairground ride at maximum speed – which is to say that from start to finish it is complete adrenaline rush, if not entirely a comfortable experience.
A love letter to the Diamond District of New York and the people who live there, Uncut Gems follows the chaotic life of Howard (Adam Sandler), a jeweller, gambling addict and an all-round walking disaster, as he tries to avoid his creditors and arrange the sale of an extremely rare Ethiopian black opal.
His problems are only exaggerated by the appearance of Kevin Garnett (played by the actual Kevin Garnett) and his entourage, who takes an interest in the gem and the unearthly properties he believes it has. Add to that an explosive relationship with his mistress Julia (Julia Fox) and the disintegration of his marriage Dinah (Idina Menzel) and you have a fraction of narrative that takes place over the space of 135 minutes.
If you’ve caught any of the Safdie Brothers’ other work before, including Good Times which starred a bleach-haired Robert Pattinson, the frenetic energy of their work is no surprise here. Characters speak over each other constantly, the strings of sentences becoming increasingly difficult to untangle, while Daniel Lopatin’s score thumps incessantly underneath the chorus of voices. Whether it was the sound set-up in the cinema I saw it, or intentional, the first twenty to thirty minutes were incredibly difficult to follow – a re-watch on Netflix will probably help.
Sandler gives his best performance in years – not hard given some of the films he’s been starring in the recent past – as the sleezy, and slightly bumbling Howard who manages to tow the line between slimeball and someone you can’t help but root for. As he runs around New York, placing bets of ever decreasing returns, pawning everything he has – and some things that he doesn’t – there is a large part of you that doesn’t want him to fail.
The whole cast is strong, as the Safdies again display their talent for employing a mixture of actors and non-professionals in their cast. Lakeith Stanfield as Demany, a part time associate of Howard and part of Garnett’s extended group helps to bring some of the more chaotic energy into the mix as he weaves seamlessly between the professional sporting world and the borderline criminal world of Howard – ready to drop whoever he is with at the moment to further his own ends.
The brothers spent months building up relationships with the locals of the Diamond District, getting permission to film in and around their businesses, as well as getting several locals involved in the cast.
As a result, you have a full throttle joyride through one man’s experience on the knife edge between untold wealth and utter despair. It is a film that is hard to explain but is worth every second.