To say that Adam Sandler’s jewelry dealer in Uncut Gems is living on the edge would be an understatement.
A hustling, scheming force of nature, Howard Ratner (Sandler) is always gambling: besides a series of ill-fated sports bets that have earned him the perpetual ire of some alternately clownish/menacing debt collectors (led by an intense Eric Bogosian), he’s counting on his semi-estranged wife (Idina Menzel) to stay with him after Passover (this in spite of his having a second apartment complete with live-in mistress (Julia Fox), and he’s wagering that his big find from Ethiopia (a rock glittering with uncut opals) will get him a huge price at an auction house.
If you’re familiar with directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s work (and I’m thinking Good Time with Robert Pattinson), their style can be seen at being overly frenetic, but in Uncut Gems it is necessary for the filmmakers to match the pace of Sandler’s wheeler dealer who drops more balls than he juggles and never seems to know the graceful way out, even when the exit is right in front of him. Faced with paying off a $100,000 debt to a trio who are progressively less than amused, Sandler’s Ratner can’t help getting himself in deeper and deeper. After he shows NBA star Kevin Garnett his stone, he allows Garnett to take it as a “good luck charm,” while holding on to Garnett’s championship ring both as collateral—and as an alternate way of gaining a bankroll. The fact that Ratner’s plans generally implode in the most untimely manner possible (including a bravura sequence at a school play) does not seem to deter him in the least—if anything these embolden him for the next endeavor.
Sandler is terrific at channeling the many shades of Ratner, fusing the schemer’s indomitable will, obnoxiousness, occasional crystal-clear perception, insensitivity, and foolhardiness into a memorable, cohesive, and even sympathetic whole. It’s not a one-man show however, especially with neglected wife Idina Menzel simmering barely contained contempt, lead nemesis Eric Bogosian exuding equal parts menace and disbelief (aimed squarely at Ratner’s mischievous machinations), Kevin Garnett (good at playing a perhaps more driven version of himself??), Julia Fox as Ratner’s affectionate and resourceful co-worker/mistress, and Judd Hirsch as Ratner’s father who becomes an unwilling participant in his son’s schemes. I haven’t even mentioned the others who are in Sandler/Ratner’s orbit (including “retiring” radio personality Mike Francesa as a bookie), but they are vital components of an exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) slice of a whirling dervish’s life.