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Now on Netflix - UNCUT GEMS

uncut gems review
A New York diamond merchant comes into possession of a rare Ethiopian gem which he hopes will change his flagging fortunes.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Starring: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Eric Bogosian

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Over their relatively short filmmaking careers, the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) have established themselves as the chroniclers du jour of New York street life, employing that city in a way rarely seen since the 1970s. They've earned a reputation for mining striking performances from inexperienced actors like Arielle Holmes and Buddy Duress, but recently they've begun dropping superstars into their unique mix, with Robert Pattinson leading a largely otherwise amateur cast in their previous film, Good Time. With Uncut Gems, they've taken one of the biggest stars on the planet, Adam Sandler, and cast him against type in a gamble of the sort the character he plays in the movie, Howard Ratner, would be proud of.


uncut gems review

Howard is a screw-up, but thanks to a support network that has recently been cut loose, he's managed to stay afloat running a business in New York's diamond district, selling tacky yet expensive items to clients with more money than sense. Howard's brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), is a money-lender who has bankrolled Howard to the tune of $100,000, but has lost patience and brought a pair of violent goons on board to persuade Howard that he means business.

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Howard sees a way out of his financial predicament when a rare Ethiopian blue opal arrives in the mail. Howard hints at how much work he had to put in to acquire the item, much like Conal Cochran in Halloween III when quizzed about how he miraculously transported Stonehenge to California - "We had a time getting it here. You wouldn't believe how we did it!" Arriving in his store is real life basketball player Kevin Garnett, a giant, unadorned Christmas tree in search of baubles. Howard can't resist showing off his new possession, which seems to have an almost hypnotic effect on the athlete. "It has a power in it," he remarks, in another nod to Halloween III (it should also be noted the Safdies opt for 'Albertus', the font associated with John Carpenter, for their opening titles). Garnett offers $175,000 for the diamond, but Howard refuses, claiming he expects it to fetch over a million at auction. The besotted baller insists that he hold onto it overnight ("Why would you show me something I can't have?" he sulks), believing it will bring him luck in a playoff game, and Howard acquiesces, taking Garnett's expensive Celtics ring as collateral. This sets in motion a chain of events that sees Howard dig himself into an increasingly deep hole.


uncut gems review

There's an oddly growing sentiment in certain circles that movie protagonists should be role models, that they should possess "strong" character traits. No thanks. Who wants to watch perfect people who never put a foot wrong? Give me a trainwreck like Howard any day of the week. Watching Howard rob from Peter to pay Paul and ending up owing both of them more than when he began is deliriously entertaining. Unlike his blue opal, Howard is far from flawless, but in spite of his faults we can't help but root for the little guy. Sandler plays him with the crooked charisma of that cheeky friend who would always get you into trouble on a night out, but always made you laugh at the same time. It's the performance of his career, one that channels the manic energy of Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffmann in their '70s prime. The supporting cast features a crop of great veteran Jewish performers like Bogosian and Judd Hirsch, mixed with newcomers like Julia Fox, excellent as Howard's young trophy mistress, and the chameleon-like Lakeith Stanfield as a young hustler Howard employs to help lure in African-American clients. As Howard's long-suffering wife, Broadway star Idina Menzel channels Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm nemesis Susie Greene. An array of amateurs with striking features (none more so than Keith Williams Richards as Arno's terrifying Rondo Hatton-esque henchman) round out the ensemble.

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As Howard rushes about Manhattan, the camera almost struggles to keep up, constantly zooming and panning to pick Howard out of a crowd. But the Safdies have dropped their 'hidden camera' aesthetic, which previously allowed them to turn unwitting New Yorkers into unpaid extras, and in this way a little of the traditional Safdie chaos has been lost. There's something ironic about this sacrifice to a more commercial, mainstream cinema in a movie that so heavily critiques the lure of materialism, but if this is your first ride on the Safdies' switchback it's not something that will play on your mind.


uncut gems review

With Uncut Gems, the Safdies complete a thematic trilogy that began with Heaven Knows What and continued through Good Time. All three movies feature protagonists with varying degrees of financial troubles rushing around New York in an attempt to solve their woes through various schemes and hustles. With each of these films I'm reminded of Ken Hughes' underseen 1963 British New Wave drama The Small World of Sammy Lee, in which Anthony Newley plays a strip club compere who manically combs the streets of London's Jewish enclave in order to scrape together the money that will save him from the wrath of the dangerous loan sharks who have given him five hours to pay off his debts. Set in a similarly Yiddish milieu, and with a similar commentary regarding its protagonist's relationship with his city's black community, Uncut Gems is the most explicit trans-Atlantic companion to Hughes' film the Safdies have yet made. Which arthouse cinema will be the first to programme this double bill, one which shows that greed crosses both oceans and generations?

UNCUT GEMS is on Netflix UK now.


2020 movie reviews