Very few movies really get inside the edgy, exhilarating, heart-stopping, self-destructive mindset of the hardcore gambler.
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965). “Rounders” (1998). Two 1974 classics: “California Split” and “The Gambler.”
To round out the top five such films I’ve ever seen, I’m adding Josh and Benny Safdie’s kinetic, electric, pulse-quickening, harrowing and brutally intense “Uncut Gems,” one of the most authentic deep-dives into the world of the gambling addict ever put on film.
Adam Sandler’s performance as a New York jeweler with a variety of voracious appetites, who has spent most of his adult life trying to beat the bookies (spoiler alert — you’re never going to beat the bookies in the long run), ranks right up there the work of Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid,” Edward Norton and Matt Damon in “Rounders,” George Segal and Elliott Gould in “California Split” and James Caan in “The Gambler.”
It might just be the best dramatic performance by an actor in all of 2019. It’s certainly deserving of an Oscar nod.
“Uncut Gems” is part psychological thriller, part black comedy, part thriller and part dysfunctional extended family drama — and it clicks on all those cylinders. It has the urgent look and jagged style of early Martin Scorsese films such as “Mean Streets.” (In fact, Scorsese is one of the producers of this film.)
It is the story of a man who is in a constant state of high anxiety. Lurking around every corner of his life is the very real possibility he’ll be caught having an affair, get beaten up by a bookie’s thugs or mess up a business deal — or maybe he’ll just collapse on the spot, with the cause of death being Overall Degenerate Lifestyle.
“Uncut Gems” is set in the recent past of 2012, in New York City. Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a hulking, goateed, leather-jacketed, bling-wearing jeweler who makes no bones about who he is — a hustler through and through. Whether Howard is behind the counter at his store (which has the atmosphere of a chop shop combined with a high-end flea market) hawking a gaudy chain with a hideously glittering Furby, trying to smooth things over with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) OR his mistress Julia (Julia Fox), ditching a couple of menacing tough guys or selling a story to the bookie who says time is running out and Howard better come through with the cash, this guy is always on the run in one form or another.
He can barely keep up with his own bull----.
The precise time period is an integral part of the story, allowing the retired basketball great Kevin Garnett to play the 2012 version of Kevin Garnett, a star power forward with the Boston Celtics.
Garnett, who went straight from Farragut Career Academy High School on the West Side of Chicago to the NBA draft, was one of the most imposing figures the game ever saw; he’s also kind of … out there. Playing a heightened version of himself, Garnett is nothing short of sensational. It’s one of the best pieces of real acting by an athlete in recent movie history.
You see, there’s this uncut gem of a stone studded with black opals, newly arrived from Ethiopia. Howard thinks it could be worth maybe a million dollars when he puts it up for auction in a few days. But when Garnett and entourage visit Howard’s store while the Celtics are in town to take on the Knicks, Garnett is instantly mesmerized by the opal and asks if he can borrow it for a few days. He’ll even let Howard hang on to his NBA championship ring as collateral.
Oh Kev. You don’t know Howard.
Garnett goes on to have a monster game, and he truly believes it’s because the opal has magic powers. He’s going to hang onto the opal just a little while longer.
Howard, who’s just as bonkers as Garnett and is increasingly powerless to stop his life from spiraling out of control, makes a huge bet contingent on the Celtics winning — AND Garnett scoring points by the bushelful and grabbing a ton of rebounds.
If it hits, Howard will be home free, at least for now. If it doesn’t, he’s dead.
The Safdie brothers are big proponents of the IN YOUR FACE school of filmmaking. One gets the feeling they’d be almost be disappointed if a few people didn’t walk out of their movies. In “Uncut Gems,” their camera plunges into the depths of a diamond mine — and the depths of a man’s colonoscopy. The dialogue often overlaps, with two or more people talking over one another, like over-caffeinated characters in a Robert Altman film.
Things get ugly in more ways than one. As played with raw, ferocious intensity by Sandler, Howard is not without his charms and charisma, but he never asks us to like him. He doesn’t really even ask that of his wife, his three children or the girlfriend he claims to love. He even understands why his bookie (who also happens to be a member of his extended family) might just have to kill him.
This is Howard’s world. If you can’t keep up or you can’t bear to see him going down, then get out of the way. He’s not asking anyone’s permission to do the things he does.