Harold (Adam Sandler) always thinks he is one step away from hitting big. A compulsive sports gambler who runs a dubious gem store, Harold is firmly placed within the seedy underbelly of New York City. And he likes it there. He thrives in the mire of it. He smiles as he schemes his way around town, placing bets with money he should be using to pay back his debts.
Harold’s Sisyphean journey of self-destruction centers on an Ethiopian stone embedded with black opals. It is a stone he claims is worth about $3,000 a carat, totaling to an approximately $1 million value. Through Harold’s partner Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), the stone winds up in the hands of Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (Garnett plays himself in the film). Garnett takes it out on loan to use as a lucky charm in the 2012 semifinals playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, and he insists on purchasing it. But Harold has it set for auction.
As Harold trolls New York, trying to pin down Garnett and Demany, he is being tracked by debt collectors hired by his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian). All the while, he is harboring delusions that he is a family man and that he can save his failing marriage despite his continued affair with one of his employees (Julia Fox).
Josh and Benny Safdie’s film is an unceasingly anxious one, propelled by Harold’s frenetic movement and Sandler’s appropriately manic performance. It is an anxiety-inducing experience. Pairing this anxiousness with the film’s loathsome, egotist protagonist may create a fairly steep barrier to entry. But the Safdies make no bones about Harold’s ill character. If we root for Harold, it is purely because we want the pressure of the situation to subside and provide us some relief. And it is no surprise where his story is going, given the wrongheadedness of his decisions.
In this way, Uncut Gems is an experiential film. As someone who has never gambled on sports, I still felt the full pressure of Harold peevishly watching the Celtics and waiting for Garnett to land a rebound or put up a three. I also felt the dread of knowing what Harold is too deluded to realize about his situation, which is that is next move is just another foot closer to the execution block.
It is not up for much debate that this is Sandler’s best performance. He made a comedy career out of playing characters with aggressive and manic tendencies. His best dramatic roles are also colored by aggression. Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love is a character whose passiveness is tested to a boiling point. Danny in The Meyerowitz Story is a kindly, somewhat beleaguered father who nevertheless succumbs to angry outbursts.
These are fine performances from Sandler that showcase his ability to tap into rage when a role calls for it. In Uncut Gems, Sandler is not merely another yelling voice (in this very yelling movie). He channels the film’s energy, that nervous yet determined drive to hit the adrenaline rush of a win.
In one of Sandler’s most poignant moments, Harold is desperately attempting to explain how it is that he can win within his chaotic life. For a moment, even though it is so clear to see his rational failings, Harold is convincing. His addictive personality and incessant hustling suddenly sound logical. In this scene, Sandler sells Harold’s entire personality. Then, just as with everything else in the film, the moment descends into madness.
The Safdies give the world of Uncut Gems a distinct life. From the depiction of Harold’s lifestyle, which is gaudy despite his precarious financial situation, to the minor characters that populate this New York underworld, the directing duo fleshes out a full setting without calling attention to the cliches which would otherwise define it. Ostensibly a crime drama, the film nevertheless feels like a unique beast. It plays by its own chaotic rules.
The entropy of Uncut Gems is completely engrossing. As the chaos blooms into a gnarly, untenable weed, the film does not let up on the pressure for a second. Its grainy aesthetic, oppressive score, and vitriolic performances help to trap us within this weed, binding us to the experience of what is easily one of the tensest films of 2019.
Uncut Gems: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)