I do not care about sports. I’ve never cared enough about gambling to even try a slot machine. Uncut Gems showed me why people care about those things, however. It made me understand the rush of a winning bet and the crushing loss of watching a gamble blow up in my face. I fell in love with the ebb and flow of tension surrounding each wager. I found myself wanting to live the life of a high-stakes gambler multiple times before the Safdie brothers masterfully punched me in the teeth and reminded me that I want nothing to do with it.
On its surface, though, Uncut Gems isn’t really a gambling movie. Sure, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is an absolute addict, constantly shuffling money to pay off gambling debts and get himself into new ones, but the movie feels more like a thriller. NBA star Kevin Garnett (himself) makes off with Howard’s rock of uncut black opal, the gems Howard needs to auction off in order to pay back his unspecified debt to Arno (Eric Bogosian). A fairly standard “man fighting against time and the mob for his own life” premise of a thriller.
But below the surface is a gambling addict. Howard is left rotating funds, pawning rings to pay down debts so he can afford to pay down yet more debts. His life is a constant spiral of lies and deceits, gambling not just with money, but with love and sex. As he and his mistress (Julia Fox) begin to deteriorate, he’s already working to get back into his wife’s (Idina Menzel) good graces. He sees people not as friends or associates, but as pieces to be gambled with, all in the name of getting himself a win.
What makes Uncut Gems such an incredible ride of a film is how well it places you in Howard’s shoes, on a very meta-level. The film makes you feel like you’ve put a ton of money on Howard, rather than the $12 to pay for your seat. The feelings of relief and tension aren’t because you like Howard (he fucking sucks), but because every move he makes feels like a step towards your big payout or your big loss. You feel yourself wanting to scream at the screen in the same way Howard does with NBA games. He’s your bet and he must win.
The Safdie Brothers created more than just a thriller or a gamble, though. They created a world. A New York that feels entirely lived in, populated with characters that I don’t need to meet to know they have lives. Simple lines given to tertiary characters felt full of history, a reminder of past interactions and of the lifetimes they may have lived up to this point. The whole film feels alive and pulsing with these incidental characters. And, thankfully, full characters don’t stop at the background.
Growing up through the ’90s and into the early ’00s, I have vague memories of enjoying Adam Sandler. But since I’ve gotten old enough to truly appreciate movies, I only recognize him as the man who phones in every performance in order to make a ton of money off a cheap, unfunny film. Uncut Gems is a much-needed reminder that Adam Sandler can be an incredible actor. Howard is an irredeemable shit lord, but you can’t help but root for him. Most of that comes from Sandler’s subtle touches. Almost every word out of his mouth feels earnest and believable, even with the early warning that he’s a manipulative liar. Sandler straddles that line perfectly, creating empathy on the backs of half-truths and outright lies. Perhaps the best thing I can say of his performance was that, for a time, I forgot he made Jack and Jill.
Going into Uncut Gems, I was filled with trepidation. The Safdie Brothers were new to me, despite a marketing campaign that seemed to suggest I should already be intimately familiar with them. I only knew Sandler as the guy who made Pixels and used to be talented. Uncut Gems blew away all those fears in the first few minutes, leaving me with a churning gut and a hope that my bet would land.