A luxurious bath in filth
Watching Uncut Gems is like having your face aggressively rubbed into a filthy nylon carpet while Aqua’s Barbie Girl is played painfully loudly on repeat. The protagonist is an irredeemable scumbag with absolutely no likeable qualities. He loves two things only: money, and the adrenaline buzz of taking moronically huge risks to make more money. A lot of the supporting characters are deeply unpleasant too.
And yet, it’s brilliant.
From the outset, the film makes its intentions clear, by cutting from the inner space (pun intended, for anyone that remembers the credits of that film) of a gem, to outer space, to an extreme close-up of a proctological exam. Yep, you’re going to get to know Adam Sandler’s character very intimately.
Adam Sandler. For some of us, that’s a name on a movie poster guaranteed to conjure as much despair as Michael Bay. I can count the number of his films I really like on one finger. I say ‘like’, but actually, I think I may love The Wedding Singer. “Don’t you talk to Billy Idol that way,” indeed. I’m ashamed to admit that I have yet to see Punch Drunk Love, but I’m going to make a point of watching it now. And I know people love The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore. Both are fine. But what’s indisputable is that since he’s been working with Netflix, apart – maybe – from Murder Mystery, he’s released an unrelenting tide of shite that would make the Exxon Valdez jealous. The Ridiculous Six anyone? No, thought not. How about we go back further, what about Jack and Jill? The only possible claim to fame of that abomination is its surely being the nadir of Al Pacino’s career.
So, it was with a dose of cynicism roughly the size of Jupiter that I sat down to watch Uncut Gems. The guy’s brilliant in this, from start to finish. He is utterly convincing as the sleazy, repellent jeweller-come-con-artist, Howard Ratner. I’m certainly not the first person to be convinced that the name surely must be a reference to Gerald Ratner.
The Ratner in the movie is vile. Kinder people than me might find some glimmer of humanity in the man, but I felt he was an unremitting jerk. He doesn’t care about his kids, his wife, his father – any of his relatives. The only other human being he has any time for is his mistress, who he treats in the same way as the ostentatious bling he covers himself in. In debt to many people, for reasons that become increasingly clear, he makes a series of staggeringly stupid decisions, always believing that he’s one step ahead of everyone else, and financially savvy. I briefly wondered if the writing was hinting at possible hypomania, but no. As another character says at one point, “Howard, you did this to yourself”.
Sandler jumps inside the character even more thoroughly than the audience does in that, um, snug opening. He’s right up in your grill, all greedy, restless energy and combative survival instinct, like a Shakespearean cross between Arthur Daley, Del Boy and a New York sewer rat. His appearance is garish, vivid, unapologetic and vain. Everything glimmers, everything is superficial, everything is the next big break, that one big hustle for which he quests desperately, like an itchy, starving vampire trapped in a deserted vegan supermarket. In fact, he’s so good in this that he felt like an awful version of Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character from Midnight Cowboy.
The supporting cast is uniformly convincing as well. Lakeith Stanfield repeats the outstanding form he brought to Short Term 12 and Sorry to Bother You. Eric Bogosian, in my experience, has a habit of being absolutely brilliant in absolutely terrible movies, so it’s a relief to see him being his dependably great self in something better here. Julia Fox somehow manages to make you empathise with her unlikeable character. The real, ahem, gem here though is Idina Menzel. It’s staggering that she’s not better known for live-action dramatic roles, frankly. The woman behind Elsa from Frozen is magnificent in the few short scenes she’s given; it barely feels like she’s acting at all.
The direction, like the anti-hero, is right in your face immediately and it doesn’t back off. There’s so much going on at times that it can’t possibly work, but it does, it just does. The music in the opening is intrusive and set my teeth on edge, but that vibe is the fabric of the film. It transmits Sandler’s nervous energy to you like a virus and pulls you beyond the event horizon of the screen to be fully immersed in the madness.
Is it a comedy? A drama? I don’t know. It’s certainly funny in parts and I laughed out loud at some scenes. You do care for some of the characters and care what happens to many of them (even if you’re not necessarily rooting for them). It seems to me that the film works as a metaphor for modern capitalism, particularly the sub-prime mortgage scandal and the global recession it created, with money being leant against worthless promises which are in turn exchanged for greater and greater gambles, leading to an inevitable disaster, like too many pint glasses stacked too high by a reckless collector in a crowded pub. It really doesn’t matter what this is, it’s a brilliant, abrasive and incredibly fresh piece of work. Honestly, I’ll probably never watch it again, but boy am I pleased that films like this still get made in this superhero saturated age.
The writer-directors, Josh and Benny Safdie are working on a remake of 48 Hours. Now, I love that movie and generally I loathe remakes. But with these guys at the helm? I’ve already bought the ticket.
Uncut Gems is available on Netflix now.
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