Directed by Benny and Josh Sefdie
So, for me, the greatest New York character film ever made is “The Taking of Pelham 123” (the 1973 original with Walter Matthau). The writing, the wise-ass remarks, the sights and smells, always put me right back in to the NYC of my youth – even if I was too young to have lived in that NYC. I knew people who were exactly like those people. When, as a high schooler, I would venture in to the city from Long Island, every person I engaged with, from LIRR conductors, to the guys who worked at Gyros II, to bouncers at the punk rock clubs…they all seemed to have come right off the screen from that film.
Now we have another which much more closely resembles the NYC of my adult life, the Sefdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems”. I would call the world the film inhabits the underbelly of the city, but truth be told, the guys in this flick are the guys I went to high school with. In fact, the Long Island home of our protagonist, Howard Ratner, is Roslyn, the town I grew up in. And like “123”, the plot is made whole by the personalities, not the other way around. Take Sandler’s Ratner out of it and we might have been left with a kinda silly and unbelievable gambling plot. But each aside, every little one-line character and their eye-roll upon hearing some platitude from Ratner, is pitch perfect. Thrown away in a manner reserved for New Yorkers, these moments are precious and specific and a giant part of why the film works so well…
…and gets its message across so clearly without being too obvious. This is New York in 2010, not long after the crash, when those who lost money were desperate to get it back as quickly as possible. And then, upon doing so, worked endlessly to make more and more. Some have said it’s simply a film about gambling…it is…but in the same way that Friday Night Lights is about football. No, this is about something much more primal. It’s a film about desperation…and greed…and the ways in which the emotional value that comes from those two can become mistakenly construed as love and intimacy. And, of course, how the ultimate cost of this confusion is the loss of intimacy with those who actually deserve and/or have earned it.
And thanks to an incredible performance from Adam Sandler, the film smacks you in the face with a wallop. Shame, sadness, and the need to please are everywhere in his performance and specific character decisions. That, in combination with the slow emotional build necessary to deliver an ending that is based on the the promise of the first act, are what lift his work well beyond an imitation of someone in this world. It’s really quite brilliant…and long-lasting. Not quite as effective in terms of character, but utilized to perfection by the Sefdies, is newcomer Julia Fox. We’ll no doubt be seeing much more of her. And, of course, you can’t do better than Eric Bogosian when it comes to making a NY film. But all the actors…almost all of whom are on screen for the first time…are such an important piece of world-building…none more so than Keith Williams Richard, who is fantastic as the lead heavy, and Tommy Kominick, as his no-neck sidekick. Idina Menzel is pure Long Island nouveau riche matriarch and Kevin Garnett, who plays himself a decade ago, is actually very very good. Only LaKeith Stanfield suffers in comparison to the rest of the cast, but only because his role is written almost exclusively as a plot manipulator. We all know what a great actor he is, so it’s not on him.
Shot in the style of cinema verite, it feels more like a Cassavetes film than a current Hollywood production, which suits the script to perfection. Darius Khondji, whose prior offerings as cinematographer lean much more heavily on beauty instead of flourescent-glare gloss, has allowed the ugly underneath to be his guiding principle. It’s harsh, reminiscent of that time period and adds to the general feeling of doom that pervades the entire film. And Sam Lisenco’s design keeps us, like Ratner, trapped, but trapped in a place of reality…not an imagined cage. Finally, the score. It might be the most bizarre score of the year and maybe much longer. Daniel Lopatin (who also goes by Oneohtrix Point Never) has written a score that seems from another time and place…electronic, sparse, annoying, and more reminiscent of something from seventies-era Klaus Schulze or Tomita, I must say it certainly adds to the anxious and careening drive engendered by the film. Bizarre, but effective.
“Uncut Gems” is not going to be for everyone. It is uncomfortable and frightening in the same way that witnessing a terrible car crash is. Which you’ve done. And the characters involved are not the sort you’d want to get to know. But you already do. It’s a film you only need to see once….you’ll only WANT to see once. But this is NYC at its most NYC and in the hands of someone as familiar as Adam Sandler, it should not be missed.