Emptiness lies beneath chaos of ‘Uncut Gems’

Betsy PickleArts 865

It’s been a long time since Adam Sandler has had to prove anything. His comedic films are bulletproof when it comes to critical attention, and his dramatic turns – “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) and “Reign Over Me” (2007) come quickly to mind – usually receive praise.


There are skeptics, of course, but many of those have jumped on board the Sandler train for “Uncut Gems.” He has won several best-actor awards from critics groups and is considered to be a lock for an Oscar nomination.

Certainly, his performance as New York jeweler Howard Ratner in “Uncut Gems” is one of the most actor-y things Sandler has done. It’s the kind of display that often draws accolades as a “tour de force” or a “role of a lifetime.”

But that would depend on a viewer’s affinity for a forced march or watching a train wreck.

You see, Howard is a gambler – and not just a gambler but the consummate risk taker. It’s not just about financial gain for him. He’s an adrenaline junkie who can envision patterns leading to bigger patterns that no one else can see. But though he’s a wealthy man, supposedly, the games he plays are usually with other people’s money, and they want to be paid off.

His latest scheme – coming together in 2012 – has been two years in the making and has to do with a black opal stolen from an Ethiopian mine. It’s a pretty fishy deal that grows to involve NBA player Kevin Garnett (now retired and playing himself in his heyday).

Garnett is one of many athletes lured to Howard’s shop by Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who gets a fee from Howard for his services.

Garnett is mesmerized by the opal and wants to buy it, but there are complications, to put it mildly.

From the time the film picks up Howard striding through the Diamond District on what seems to be a typical day for him – talking, nay screaming, his way through one dicey situation after another, being followed by thugs – the movie is a nonstop barrage of twists and foul language that would make David Mamet squirm. No one suffering from PTSD should watch this movie; it would cause nightmares for days.

Even those fond of a little chaos in their lives will find it challenging, to put it kindly. The script by directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, along with Ronald Bronstein, is brutal to the characters and the audience.

Howard is supposed to be charismatic, but he comes off as abrasive and annoying. He and wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) are on the verge of announcing their separation. He’s dismissive of his employees, even Julia (Julia Fox), who is his mistress, and pays little attention to his children.

Sandler chews the scenery, but it’s all made of sawdust. There’s nothing to relate to in Howard and nothing redemptive about him. There may be some genius to him, but it’s a selfish genius.

The supporting cast doesn’t get much to do, although several of them register favorably. Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian and The Weeknd (as himself) appear in significant roles.

The cinematography by Darius Khondji (“Seven,” “Delicatessen”) is the film’s strongest asset. His boundless creativity gives hope that something will rise from the convoluted storyline, but it’s a vain hope.

For all its noise and energy, “Uncut Gems” is no treasure. Perhaps it takes its cue from the ancient claims of opals being cursed. Or perhaps it’s just a gambit that aims high and comes up short, as so many gambles do.

Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. Now in theaters.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter best known as the longtime film critic for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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