DEVIN MEENAN, Arts and Life Editor—Sometimes, a great film isn’t one that’s easy to sit through. Last year’s “Uncut Gems,” the latest film from sibling director duo Josh and Ben Safdie, is the most recent example of this archetype.
Screened by the Denison Film Society this past weekend, “Uncut Gems” follows the lows and very fleeting highs of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a gambling-addicted NYC jeweller whose efforts to repay his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) are consistently foiled by misfortune and his own impulsiveness. The centerpiece of Howard’s scheme is a freshly-mined, uncut (get it?) opal imported from Ethiopia and which Howard believes to be worth over a million dollars.
The story from here is basically a downward spiral, as Howard’s plans continue to blow up in his face one after another, exacerbated by the struggles in his family life. This winds-up being just as stressful for the audience as it is for Howard himself; it’s almost a horror movie, but one where your skin will crawl not from disgust or dread, but sheer anxiety.
Exacerbating this feeling is that the Safdie’s employ a specific combination of close-up shots, fast-paced editing, crowded blocking, and actors talking over each other, giving even scenes fairly simple in conception a borderline indecipherable quality. This, on the other hand, means that scenes where two characters share a scene together one-on-one, with a clearly intelligible exchange, seem all the more important as a result (the final scene of the second act, where Howard finally breaks down from his mounting failures while his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) tries to comfort him particularly stands out).
What makes the film great, however, is the performances, doubly astonishing since the cast is populated primarily by non-professional actors and the lead isn’t generally known for dramatic capability.
Sandler’s brand of abrasiveness is able to make Howard simultaneously loathsome enough that you can laugh at some of his misfortunes and pathetic enough that your heart aches for others. Sandler is so good here that you start to regret that he’s otherwise content to phone it in for the “comedies” (or rather self-admitted paid vacations) he mostly stars in.
Eric Bogosian makes the most of limited screen time and dialogue with an omnipresent searing scowl, Julia Fox’s debut performance as Howard’s eponymous mistress is the most charismatic in the film, and former Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett (playing himself circa. 2012) may not be the first sports star to attempt a transition to acting, but based on him here, he may wind up being one of the best.
Uncut Gems was shut out at the Oscars this past year, with Sandler having previously threatened to make the most intentionally awful film he could imagine if he failed to get a Best Actor nomination (guess what happened?). If for nothing else, see “Uncut Gems” as what may be the last piece of proof humanity ever gets that Adam Sandler is actually a talented actor.