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‘Uncut Gems’ is gripping orchestration of chaos, tension

| Monday, January 27, 2020

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“Uncut Gems” was directed by Josh and Benny Safdie and stars Adam Sandler as Howard Raton, an eccentric and out-of-control New York jeweler who thrives on high-stake gambling bets and the euphoria of winning big. Sandler turns in perhaps the best performance of his career with this film and generates a compelling argument for those who feel the Academy routinely fails to recognize talent more often than it awards it.

The Safdie brothers clearly have a knack for making tension both palpable and darkly humorous and use this comedic angle to bring the best out of Sandler’s take on the character. From Howard’s introduction to his final scene, the audience is held in a death-grip as it waits for the other proverbial shoe to drop and land squarely on the big-time jeweler’s head. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, this sort of film could have come off as an overly predictable tale of a man’s downward spiral into complete chaos, but the Safdie brothers effectively use the audience’s expectations to fuel the tension in every scene.

Much like Howard, the audience is never given a chance to rest, and the film conveys this sense of restlessness constantly. Loud music blares as characters talk over each other. Phones ring off the hook while negotiations over jewel prices and overdue payments are hashed out without end. Higher and higher bets are placed, and Howard finds himself in increasingly more hostile confrontations as he frantically handles bundles of cash and pushes his luck one step further with every gamble and poor decisions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Howard does not possess a single redemptive quality aside from the inherent charm that comes from the ingenious casting of Sandler in the lead role. While entertaining to watch as he tailspins, the character’s complete lack of morality results in a certain degree of detachment between Howard and the audience. It can be difficult to see any humanity in a character who is so quick to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole at the cost of his safety, sanity and familial commitments as a husband and father. Because Howard’s repeated mistakes are made without any sense of remorse, his descent is partially bereft of an emotional punch that would otherwise accompany such a nose-dive. Nevertheless, Sandler is captivating to watch and effortlessly wraps the audience up in the manic excitement of his high-stake gambling.

Sandler isn’t the only stand out of “Uncut Gems,” however. Newcomer Julia Fox shines in a compelling and inconspicuously hilarious performance as Howard’s employee and mistress Julia, and real-life basketball star Kevin Garnet puts in an excellent debut performance as a fictionalized version of himself determined to get his hands on one of Howard’s most valuable gems. Both Fox and Garnet are mesmerizing to watch in their debut performances and provide great foils to Sandler’s increasingly desperate Howard.

Although the film’s style may come across as obnoxious or overbearing to viewers, such gaudy extravagance mirrors the soul of the film’s many chronically frenzied characters and is bolstered by incredible performances. “Uncut Gems” isn’t asking for its audience to like Howard, but it is offering them a unique glimpse towards where such a path of recklessness might lead, highs and lows alike. “Uncut Gems” trusts in the intelligence of its viewers and gleefully brings the audience along on a dark ride of chance and consequence that will leave you both engaged and exhausted.

Movie: “Uncut Gems”

Director: Josh and Benny Safdie

Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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