By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 8, 2020)
After watching Uncut Gems, I came to a pretty drastic realization and decision.
I think I’m done watching Safdie Brothers movies. The last two I’ve seen, Good Time and Uncut Gems, have left me in such a negative mood, because the films are flat out abrasive as to be painful and exceedingly coarse to the touch. They’re filled with just the worst people in no-win situations that they only make that much more terrible by their decisions, and while that works for Martin Scorsese (who has a production credit) and some others, this one has nothing whatsoever redeemable about it, and it’s so frantic and sandpaper-like that it becomes almost impossible to watch.
That’s exactly the same reaction I had to Good Time, which also had widespread critical acclaim, and while Robert Pattinson absolutely crushed his performance, just as Adam Sandler did, I would NEVER, for any reason, even consider watching this movie again. That’s not to say it isn’t compelling, because it is, but it moves so very abruptly from one hellscape to the next that your senses can’t even adjust to the sludge in front of you.
The Safdie Brothers are the Anti-Pixar.
Perhaps, reviewing R-rated stuff of this nature isn’t for me anymore, but that’s a big problem considering the job I do as a film and television critic. So, I don’t have the answer yet. I may have to endure it, or I may change up how I go about my work. But that’s for another day. Uncut Gems has quite possibly the worst language I’ve heard in a major release in many years, which I only mention incase you had any thoughts about your kids going. If Josh and Benny Safdie directed it, I’d say don’t even think about it. It’s at least 20 times worse than The Irishman, just as one example.
Getting back to the movie itself, Adam Sandler is just as good as you’ve heard. He’s outstanding as Howard Ratner, a relatively successful jeweler in the Manhattan Diamond District (which is why the brothers wrote the script, as their father worked in the industry) who can’t stay above board both in his marriage or in his work life, primarily because of a gambling addiction that’s left him in tons of debt and without tons of time. He has the kind of day-to-day life you’d expect, and he gets into a lot of trouble because he’s obsessed with betting on NBA games, leading to an interesting back-and-forth about why it is that “white Jews” love pro hoops so much.
What’s irritating about Uncut Gems is no matter how interesting it almost becomes, as it nearly drew me in on several occasions, the pacing and constant, almost disordered like motion of Ratner and all those around him just assaults you as a viewer. Sometimes that can work, but here, even if it fit the story and fit the script, it wasn’t fun or engaging. It took me out of the movie. I just wanted it to slow down and stop yelling at me. It wasn’t, thankfully, complete with a droning death score underneath every second as Good Time was, so you could actually understand the dialogue and keep up a bit more with the smaller parts of the story.
Many have commented on how the movie ended, and without spoiling it, it ended exactly like I thought it would, in much the same fashion, and that wasn’t a knock. It’s how this film needed to end, how the story needed to conclude, and the Safdie Brothers did a good job at tying up the loose ends and simply bringing their tale to the finish line. I didn’t hate Uncut Gems. I just found it so tough to watch that it was more of a chore than it needed to be. No question, it was directed so grittily as to connote precisely the mood they wanted, but it just went further down that spiral than I prefer. I felt very similarly about Sicario, which many people loved. It was another one. There’s a level of down and dirty that goes past what I’m looking for, and thus this is merely my opinion.
Here’s another opinion: Adam Sandler turned up his own volume more than changing into a different character, but he still should be considered for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. There’s a line of thinking that Joaquin Phoenix basically did the same to play what feels like a Best Actor winning performance as Arthur Fleck in Joker, but even if you still know you’re watching Sandler or Phoenix, it’s still incredibly effective. Also like Joker, Sandler’s Ratner takes up so much of the screen that it becomes almost a vehicle for Sandler, rather than a movie that matters in any other context.
That’s not to say some of the other performances aren’t good, most notably Lakeith Stanfield, but also, surprisingly, Kevin Garnett, who plays himself quite well in the Safdie universe. Julia Fox and Idina Menzel are excellent, but everybody is in the shadow of Sandler, which, because he’s outrageously good, isn’t a bad thing or anything to see as critical. They serve their roles and serve them well, Eric Bogosian, in particular, has some unbelievably powerful facial expressions in the climax of the movie. It’s made by Sandler, but broken by nobody else.
The story makes sense in the darkness of Josh and Benny Safdie, even beginning with a grisly sequence from Ethiopia to show the difficulty of being a diamond miner in the first place, and there is a clever visual trick to both the front and the back of the movie, basically bookmarking a start and end in a mirror-image kind of way. I did not “like” Uncut Gems, because it’s not a film you just “love” in my estimation. I see its artistic value, am glad I saw Sandler’s performance, wanted to see how the story ended, understand why so many are raving about it, and don’t think you’re wrong if you loved it.
It just wasn’t nearly as much for me as it was for a lot of other people. I wouldn’t tell my friends and family to see it, mainly because of the content, but also just because it’s almost like “work” getting through it, just as Good Time was. I would love to see what these two could do in something a shade or two lighter, but Uncut Gems is by no means a bad movie. It’s just too dark for my tastes.