UNCUT GEMS (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)
Advance word on this movie has been building for over three months, at least since its premiere at Telluride and later Toronto. With all the warnings and salutations (“it’s a two-hour panic attack!”) it had built up such a head of steam that it seemed ready to absolutely explode onto screens in its public release this past weekend. And almost as a response to the hype, the movie doesn’t so much unfurl or unspool as it does detonate in every direction, leaving you gasping for air not only mid-film, but even as the credits roll. It’s that much of a blood-pressure coronary.
The Safdies’ two previous narrative features, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and GOOD TIME, also seemed to be building up to whatever this is: the momentum has been accelerating, following Safdie protagonists with increasing exercise and sweat. What Sandler is doing here is nothing short of a miracle, both for him and the movie — his Howard Ratner is a heaving zit of desperation, manically screaming at everyone, frantically spreading lies around faster than his own (and other people’s) money, trying to stay one step ahead of the doom that part of him knows he can’t escape. Watching Howard dodge collectors, berate others on the phone, chase after people, and pray for the results of sports games wildly out of his control is like watching Indiana Jones try to outrun the boulder rolling down the ramp at his back, but knowing that the only direction Indy can run is into a brick wall.
Sandler has been shouting dialogue for decades, both in his shrill comedies (BIG DADDY, HAPPY GILMORE) and his ventures into drama (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIS), because his face and attitude seem to invite mania. But the Safdies have given him a role that somehow requires even louder screaming and unchecked freneticism, resulting in Sandler’s finest work to date. He’s found a role that challenges his own tendency to yell, because here the material is more desperate than even Sandler’s need is to entertain. And not only does his anger and paranoia work as realistic and compelling, but his resulting sadness does too — when he’s crying upon mounting failures, or nodding his head to encourage someone to say yes to everything he’s asking for, the vulnerability is palpable and almost too much to bear.
The Safdies have elevated their craft, too. Visually, they’re now utilizing the lens of Hall of Fame DP Darius Khondji (SEVEN, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS), whose grain is somehow more beautiful than most people’s landscape shots. Even when he’s shooting a club in blacklight or darkness, Khondji highlights the orange sweatshirt worn by Lakeith Stanfield or the neon pink of Sandler’s shirt. The script pursues some themes explored by GOOD TIME as well, notably the tendency of its white male lead to exploit and take advantage of blacks in order to keep his own head above water (Howard has zero reservations, if he even has awareness, of where his jewels come from, nor how he sees professional athletes as chess pieces in his sports betting habit). From a mid-film centerpiece symphony of panic (a buzzed magnetic door that won’t open, a doctor calling with results, a poisoned fish tank, etc.) to the climactic basketball game, this is a movie you don’t so much watch as you get dragged behind it across pavement at 100 mph. Buckle the fuck up.