Uncut Gems

Year: 2019
Production Co: Elara Pictures
Director: Josh Safdie/Benny Safdie
Writer: Ronald Bronstein/Josh Safdie/Benny Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield, Pom Klementieff, Eric Bogosian, The Weekend, Kevin Garnett

It'a almost as if Adam Sandler has this all planned out, doing one stupid big studio comedy after another for Sony (subsequently Netflix) that critics routinely hate so that once a decade he can completely wrong foot everyone, reminding the whole industry he can excel in a well-chosen role. Last time he did it was in Punch Drunk Love, a similarly surprising combination of star and director (Paul Thomas Anderson) as this movie is.

Here he teams teams with the rising stars of the indie movement in Benny and Josh Safdie, working with a bigger canvas than they have thus far in everything from star power to geography.

Sandler is Howard, a New York jeweller whose life is spiralling out of control while he tries to employ his hustling skills and motor mouth to keep himself afloat and alive. He's estranged from his wife, his daughter's at the age when she veers between wanting nothing to do with him and thinking he's an idiot and he's having a fiery affair with one of his employees (and former Playboy model Julia Fox, playing a woman with the same name, is hot enough to melt the zipper on your trousers).

With mounting debts thanks to a gambling problem, Howard's trying to juggle a deal to sell a rare African gemstone – including keeping a superstitious star basketballer on the hook – and the stress of keeping so many balls in the air is starting to overwhelm him. He's already in deep with his loanshark brother in law, and when two armed goons start hanging around too, it seems Howard's in more trouble than you realise.

He has to try to sell the African opal for as much money as he can, manage outsized bets on sports events and pawn, beg, borrow and steal favours from everywhere to keep the whole thing afloat among various associates and colleagues.

On paper it's a well-constructed (if surface-level) script, but the magic is all in the delivery. The Safdies tell the story pretty straight in a narrative sense, but their off kilter aural and visual tics give it more of a force of personality than you'd think a story like this would warrant.

It's got everything from a strange astral travel-like sequences into the gemstone that show the galaxies of colours and forms in the opal to a soundtrack full of riffs that made me think of 80s sci-fi movies. And the rest of it's all in the manic pace, an element for which Sandler is perfectly cast. I read in another review that the constant stress and discomfort is the point, and that's as concise a description as I've seen.

Howard is constantly striding down the street yelling into his phone, trying to talk someone out of overreacting to another dumb decision he's made, pleading and threatening with people to get things to go his way, leaning out a window to pass a bag full of money to someone, all of it an ad hoc contrivance to maintain one terrible move after another.

If there's any theme or moral it might be a simple as 'don't get into debt over gambling' – as the shocking denouement proves, all Howard's careful (and careless) wheeling and dealing ends up coming to very little in the face of someone else deciding they've had enough of his crap.

So what's left is the pleasure of seeing two great directors (only one brother is credited, but I'm sure they're two halves of the same creative brain) maintain a nervy, energetic tone and a – good, really! – actor who throws himself all in to their concept.

With what looks like more money to spend than they've ever had, enjoying the resources of professional performers and the practical needs of having streets, sidewalks etc shut down for filming, the Safdies are becoming like a Gen Y Coen brothers, taking their obvious love of popular, commercial cinema and using it to inspire very very high quality arthouse films.

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