I could describe Uncut Gems for you, or you could try and hold your breath for a full minute and pretty much have the same experience.
Written and directed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie (Good Time), Uncut Gems follows a man who doesn’t seem to take time to breathe. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) runs a high-end, back-channel Manhattan jewelry shop—rappers and NBA stars are among his regular clients—that has him constantly bartering prices and cutting deals. On the side, he also makes big bets on NBA games, often pawning a piece of jewelry here or there to cover it. And while life is busy in his suburban home, where his wife (Idina Menzel) and three kids live, he’s constantly heading back into the city late at night to schmooze at nightclubs with his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox). Howard must breathe, but he sure doesn’t sleep.
The Safdies capture Howard’s frenetic life in two ways: aesthetically and via Sandler’s performance. The score, by Daniel Lopatin, employs synthesizers in a way that makes it seem like the screen is throbbing. Darius Khondji’s cinematography prioritizes colors you only notice after midnight; not neon, exactly, but something more like the cool electronic glow of a car’s dashboard. Add an invasive editing scheme (Benny Safdie edits alongside Ronald Bronstein, who also had a hand in the script) and Uncut Gems looks and feels like some strange combination of casino and stock-market trade floor. I wanted out, even as I couldn’t look away.
And then there’s Sandler, scuttling about and channeling the relentlessness of his comic persona into a recognizable human being. Howard multitasks the way a fish swims—as a way of staying alive. (At one point, when he already has three angry calls on hold, he reaches for an incoming ring with the assurance that this is the one that will save his skin.) When Howard comes into a rare opal, he parlays it into a series of schemes—one involving NBA legend Kevin Garnett, slyly playing a variation on himself—that he hopes will get him out of debt with his loan-shark brother-in-law (a steely Eric Bogosian). Despite how arrogant and annoying Howard is, we still root for him, the way we root for a high-wire tightrope walker.
Acrobats, however, almost always make it, while it’s pretty clear from the start that Howard is doomed. That’s because it’s not the win he’s after, but the rush of the risk. This becomes clear in an insanely intense climactic scene in which Howard has essentially closed a deal with the opal, giving him what he needs to settle his debts, but considers using the earnings to go after a bigger score instead. I won’t say what happens, except to note that there’s something smugly unceremonious about the way the film depicts Howard’s fate. I don’t know if he deserved anything different—there’s a cold logic to the finale—but the Safdies and Sandler had created such an indelible character that I can’t help but feel he deserved something better.