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Uncut Gems

Good Time is an oddity to weird to live and too rare to die.

My review of Good Time

I’m starting to think that this is the general style of the Safdie Brothers. I might just as easily have written it for Uncut Gems, their new passion project. Except that Gems is actually the inferior film. I’ll explain.

This is the story of Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler. He’s a Jewish jewelry broker working out of the Diamond District in New York. He’s married to Dinah (Idina Menzel, what in the Nine Hells are you doing here?) with three kids, and on the verge of a divorce because Howard’s been banging one of his employees on the side (Julia, played by Julia Fox). Ratner has an extremely posh house somewhere upstate, plus an upscale apartment in the city, his kids have every possible comfort, and his jewelry business brings in such high-rolling celebrities as Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics (playing himself, if you can believe it).

Problem: Howard has a crippling addiction to gambling. Every time he gets the money to pay off his debts, he puts it on another sports bet. Naturally, the loan sharks are getting rather aggressive at this point.

The good news is, Howard has taken delivery of an uncut black opal straight from the mines of Ethiopia, which he plans to auction off at upwards of a million dollars. The bad news is that Kevin Garnett — ever the superstitious athlete — has become obsessed with the opal, convinced that it could give him the power to win the playoffs. Thus Howard is pressured to loan the opal to Garnett, who reneges on his deal to return it. Hilarity ensues.

Can we get back to Good Time for a minute?

That movie was about a main character who gets into criminal shenanigans for the sake of his family. Everything illegal that he did for money (and he pulled a lot of illegal shit in that picture), he did for a mentally handicapped younger brother who couldn’t take care of himself. That’s sympathetic. There’s a character you can root for. Those are clear stakes we can emotionally invest in.

Let’s compare that to Howard.

Yes, somebody fucked him over and backed out of a promise to give back the outrageously expensive gemstone that could pay off Howard’s debts. That sucks. I get it. We’ve all been screwed over by some asshole who wasn’t as reliable as promised, and it’s a shitty position to be in. But here’s the thing: There is literally zero good reason why Howard had to loan out the gemstone in the first place. Hell, if Howard never intended to sell or loan the opal, he had even less than no good reason to show it off at all. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Kevin Garnett saying that!

More to the point, Howard didn’t get into debt for medical expenses or mortgages or anything sensible like that. He got into trouble with loan sharks over sports gambling. He wasn’t even gambling because he needed the money — he’s operating a thriving jewelry business in New York City, and he’s surrounded by no shortage of material luxuries that he could sell off at any time.

Even when it comes to his marriage and his family, he’s throwing all of that away for an affair with an employee, which might even put his business at risk for no reason whatsoever. Last but not least, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the loan shark threatening Howard with severe bodily harm is his own brother-in-law (Arno, played by Eric Bogosian), so of course Howard’s wife and kids are in no danger.

I know we don’t necessarily need a sympathetic protagonist, but we do need stakes. Howard’s life is totally miserable and there’s no sign that he’s going to change his ways anytime soon (even if he wants to), so what does he stand to gain if he comes out on top? For that matter, what difference does it make if he loses and dies? I hate to sound so callous, but his family was in the process of dumping him anyway (because he had an affair, remember) and he doesn’t seem to have any friends aside from his mistress, so what does anyone stand to lose if Howard doesn’t succeed?

I just don’t get the point of this plot. As far as I can tell, this is yet another crime thriller that warns against the sins of pride and greed. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done a million times in other, better crime thrillers.

Adam Sandler’s been getting a ton of acclaim for his lead performance. I’m not seeing it. You do realize that “the best performance of Adam Sandler’s career” is faint fucking praise, right? No way is this Best Actor material. Not when he’s squawking half his dialogue with all the fiery intensity of goddamn Gilbert Gottfried.

In all honesty, nobody comes out looking good in this picture. I know for a fact that Idina Menzel can do so much better than play the frigid ice bitch like she is here. Likewise, Julia Fox is greatly hampered by the paper-thin floozy she’s playing here. And this might be the worst performance I’ve ever seen from Lakeith Stanfield, because he (like Sandler and Garnett, for that matter) is tasked with being an inconsistent argumentative asshole who yells all the time and causes trouble for no reason whatsoever.

This is a loud and ugly movie from a filmmaking team that specializes in loud and ugly movies (again, see Good Time). The Safdies love, love, LOVE their extreme close-up shots, the better to get every last wrinkle and mole hair on that 50-foot screen. I commend the Safdies for depicting the street-level culture of New York in such exacting and intricate detail. From the criminal underbelly to the upscale millionaires to the Jewish middle-class family, the Safdie Brothers are admirable in their unflinching and authentic portrayal of New York City, warts and all.

But the ugliness can’t be an end in itself. The ugliness has to be a means to an end. If it’s for the sole purpose of making a misanthropic crime thriller with nothing deeper to say than “pay your debts, don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t gamble more than you can afford to lose, and don’t do business with people who are clearly not trustworthy”, then what use does anyone have for it?

On a miscellaneous note, the Safdies show a penchant for soundtracks with an ’80s synth vibe. I’m not sure it necessarily matches what’s onscreen, but I dig it.

As with Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and David Ayer, I admire the Safdie Brothers’ filmmaking ability even as I hate how they use those abilities. I could tolerate Good Time because that movie was at least unpredictably batshit and it had a sympathetic protagonist worth following. Compare that to Uncut Gems, in which there isn’t a single character worth rooting for and everything goes predictably wrong even if the plot has to bend over backwards. And no, I refuse to elevate Adam Sandler’s performance here to the level of the Oscars simply because he rose above his typical lowbrow oeuvre.

There are better awards contenders out right now, folks. Even with the beautifully gritty presentation, I wouldn’t recommend bothering with this one.

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