Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Film Review: Uncut Gems

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

From the opening minutes of Uncut Gems, you can feel the power and talent that went into making this film.  The Safdie Brothers and co-writer Ronald Bronstein craft a sharp, frenetic, and raw movie with its center being an electric Adam Sandler.  It is very obvious that this movie was created by people using the height of their storytelling skills.

Too bad it isn't a story worth telling.

Uncut Gems is the story of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a New York City jeweler who is as shifty as he is sleazy.  He hustles and struggles to pay off his gambling debts.  The problem is that as soon as he gets any kind of capital, he immediately lays it all on a shakey bet.  His marriage to his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is disintegrating completely even as he continues his affair with his employee Julia (Julia Fox).  To make matters worse, he owes over $100,000 to Dinah's brother Arno (Eric Bogosian).  This is the world in which Howard begins.  But he receives a smuggled in rare black opal that he believes will be the solution to all of his problems.  Complications occur when NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), wants the opal and superstitiously wants to hold on to it.  From there things continue to spiral out of control.

Sandler has been getting an incredible amount of praise for this role and he should.  He completely sheds his likability and instead dons the snake skin of a villain.  Howard is so incredibly unlikeable and Sandler does not rely on his usual comedic charm to get you on his side.  Howard is a sleaze that will constantly frustrate you with every imprudent and immoral decision.  Sandler reigns in all of the twinkle in his eye and instead you have this man who looks at everyone and everything like a predator stalking his prey.  The only thing that holds you to Howard is Sandler's dark charisma.  The other performances are also wonderfully unpolished.  There is an edge to what everyone says and does in the film that scratches.  If Quentin Tarantino's dialogue is smooth like silk, all of the characters here are rough like sandpaper.

This is completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers.  The Safdie brothers walk you into a world that is bleak and gritty.  Their New York City feels like it was filmed in the middle of the 1970's, full of wanton sex, drugs, and general grime.  They move the camera around in a very loose, documentary style while framing everything in an incredibly claustrophobic way.  As Howard feels the walls closing in, the visuals make you feel like there is no escape.  Even the nicer areas like Howard's family's luxury apartment feel cold in their opulence, lacking all the warmth and heart of a family home.  Everything in this film screams that this a movie about terrible things happening to a terrible person.

And while this can be skillfully done, it makes for a thoroughly unpleasant movie experience.  While I was interested in Howard's journey, I could never become invested in it.  His character was so flawed that I knew that any victory he achieved would be thrown away.  I don't know that I would say that the character was irredeemable.  There are moments when he seems to reach out for a lifeline to his wife or his girlfriend.  He knows that there is something horribly wrong with his heart.  In one of Sandler's best scenes, Howard is struggling with the reality of his own ugliness, crying uncomprehendingly as to why his girlfriend would love someone as unloveable as him.

The movie doesn't go for easy answers, and I applaud that.  Howard's self-hatred is not enough to redeem him.  But like Claudius in Hamlet, Howard cannot truly repent because he cannot give up the horrible life he is living.  The truth is that Howard likes the filth in which he is wallowing.  He wants all of the sinful pleasures without any of the sinful consequences.  He is a loser in the truest sense of the word.  You know that even if all of his plans come to fruition, he will doom himself after the credits roll.

There is an argument to be made that this in itself is a morality tale, a warning to stay on the straight and narrow.  And to be sure I am not opposed to movies that show horrible people doing things as long as it shows that they are bad.  The Godfather and the TV show Breaking Bad did this masterfully.  

The difference here is that in both of the above cases you had men (Michael Corleone and Walter White) who were flawed but basically decent men who slowly made choices that damned them.  And each choice they made was understandable, if not acceptable, until they fell off the moral cliff.  In Uncut Gems, Howard is already at the bottom of the cliff and he is only looking to climb high enough not to be devoured by the wolves.

When you start with a character this vile, the film makers take a big gamble as to whether or not their skill is strong enough to make the audience find their protagonist compelling enough to take the movie's journey.  It is a big gamble, like the kind Howard would take.

In the case of Uncut Gems, the gamble does not pay off.

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