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Adam Sandler’s ‘Uncut Gems’ is a gloriously ugly film

Co-star Kevin Garnett’s casting comes across as a bit of genius

Howard Ratner, the antihero of Uncut Gems played by Adam Sandler, is always standing on the outside of his own life, yelling to get into the VIP room, and never appreciating where he is.

In his most memorable role since Spanglish (2004), Sandler creates a shambling, awkward, tacky, middle-aged mess of a man. Howard is a successful jeweler in New York’s Diamond District. He drives a late-model Mercedes, owns a condo in Manhattan and a house outside of the city, and he covers himself in Gucci. And yet, Howard almost never experiences happiness because he’s so entangled in his obsessive pursuit of it. Everyone around the man is either irritated with him or embarrassed by him, including his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), his daughter, and his employee Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who serves as a conduit between Howard and the cool black celebrities who will spend money in his shop, but otherwise would never be seen with the man.

From left to right: Basketball star Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and Adam Sandler in a scene from Uncut Gems. Though he’s playing himself, Garnett is given a few challenges in the movie.

Courtesy of A24

But no one is more disgusted with Howard than Arno (Eric Bogosian), his brother-in-law, who has been financing Howard’s gambling habit to the tune of $100,000. Arno wants his money, and Howard has made yet another bet: that a rare opal extracted from a mine in Ethiopia will deliver a million-dollar windfall.

Under the direction of Josh and Benny Safdie (whose father worked in the Diamond District) we fall directly from the mine that has claimed an unfortunate worker’s foot, through the gem, and directly into Howard’s colon. That’s about the only rest a viewer will get for the remaining two hours and 10 minutes of the film, a bumpy, nail-biting, sweaty-palmed, heart-in-your-stomach ride through Howard’s life, the sort that makes you think, at multiple junctures, how can any man live like this?

Forget about the possibility of colon cancer — the biggest threat to Howard’s life is himself. He’s overdue for a coronary, and by the end of the film you’re left wondering whether you should see a doctor and demand an EKG for yourself. Sheesh.

Howard’s life seemingly takes a turn for the better when Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett comes into his shop, which, as usual, is in chaos thanks to a shakedown visit from Arno and two of his heavies. Garnett, in the middle of a playoff run, becomes enchanted with the uncut Ethiopian rock that a fawning Howard presents to him. Howard allows Garnett to borrow it, even though he’s already promised it to an auction house. As collateral, Garnett leaves his 2008 championship ring, which Howard turns around and pawns in order to make a bet on the game Garnett’s playing that night.

Co-written with Ronald Bronstein, Uncut Gems is the fourth and most high-profile narrative feature from the Safdies (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What, Good Time). If you’re unfamiliar with their style, which fixates on an unvarnished, constantly uncomfortable, in-your-face New York, their video for Jay-Z’s “Marcy Me” provides a quick example:

Though he’s playing himself, Garnett is given a few challenges, especially in a scene that features just him and Sandler. In a recent media roundtable, Garnett shared a bit of the theater within pro basketball by revealing that his Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, would regularly morph from coach into director. Rivers, Garnett said, would insist on conducting rehearsals of how Garnett would exit huddles when he called a play. The star’s posture and facial expressions were just as important as ball-handling or nailing shots, apparently. Rivers was an on-court architect of psychological warfare, and Garnett was his chief warrior.

It turned out to be serendipitous training for Garnett’s work with the Safdies, a couple of rough-and-tumble gonzos whose films are marked by a disturbing degree of reality. Garnett’s casting comes across as a bit of genius. He moves through the chaos of Howard’s life with a natural placidity, even when he’s clearly exasperated with the jeweler. But then, Garnett has something Howard lacks in life: a concrete goal. He wants another NBA title.

Howard, on the other hand, flits from crisis to crisis, always looking for the next thing that will offer some momentary fulfillment and keep Arno off his back. He can’t resist hurriedly bulldozing through everything, even Passover.

Production designer Sam Lisenco makes Uncut Gems an ugly film, but deliberately so. It’s about a man with a gambling addiction who leads a small, ugly life peddling shiny rocks for a living. Howard’s world is gaudy, gimmicky and dark. The New York pied-à-terre where he keeps his mistress seems to have been decorated entirely from a Sharper Image catalog.

The magic trick of the Safdies is that even when they plunge you into the dyspeptic, spleeny, cyclical hell of Howard’s own making, they manage to make you root for him anyway. Howard’s made a wobbly chariot out of betting slips and a tenuous relationship with the star of a team he doesn’t even like, and yet here we are, praying that the wheels don’t fall off.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.