Uncut Gems: Sandler the schemer in the Safdies’ scuzzy saga.
Who says television isn’t educational? Ever hear of African Jews? Diamond man (14 carat, not baseball) Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) hadn’t, not until the night a documentary introduced him to a tribe of landlocked nomads sporting precious black opals. The resulting quest to get his hands on one becomes a testament to his passion. Using the History Channel as one would QVC, Howard makes a few calls, and in 17 months, his package arrives — cold-packed and Fed-Exed in the guts of a fish. It’s on this day that Uncut Gems begins.
The opening shot shares an eerie similarity with the archaeological dig that greets us in The Exorcist, but instead of dredging up Pazuzu in Iraq, impoverished Ethiopians risk life and limb mining diamonds to ship stateside. In exchange for a cut, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) sends business Howard’s way, in the form of high-profile African-Amerian celebs. Howard’s clientele consists mostly of rappers and sports figures, and the film excels at exploring the hero worship that Jews have for black athletes. According to Howard, the connection dates back to 1946, when a Jewish chap by the name of Ossie Schectman scored the first two points in the NBA. To Demany, his mirror-opposite goes by the affectionate sobriquet, “Black Jew power n---a.”
The odd looking, 5000-carat stone that Howard acquires resembles a rock that swallowed a stoplight whole, causing it to beam individual pockets of hypnotic light. It’s also Howard’s life’s blood, and to prove it, an opening credit special effect transitions us from inside the opal to the colonoscopy tube lodged in his tuchas. You see, Howard is eyebrow-deep in debt — he’s into the mob for 100 grand — and his day consumed with robbing Peter to pawn to Paul. His life is a constant juggling act, his desperate ploy a complex series of bets involving a multitude of moving parts. He’s got to distract his clients long enough to keep afloat everything from a studded Michael Jackson pendant, an NBA championship ring, and most of all the opal; the rewards could top over a million. That’s the business end. Ironically, his enforcer (Eric Bogosian) is his brother-in-law, with whom he later shares an uncomfortable Passover seder. Rounding out his immediate family are a sick and tired spouse (Idina Menzel), three kids not yet old enough to comprehend just how big of a shitheel dad is, and Julia (Julia Fox in a blistering debut), a younger secretary/mistress who stands to profit most.
Moments of character motivation don’t always cohere. NBA player Kevin Garnett (played by ex-NBA superstar Kevin Garnett) is there when the package is delivered to Howard’s exchange. Thinking it’s a million dollar good luck charm, he asked Howard to sell it to him outright, or at least let him borrow it for that night’s Eastern Conference finals. When Howard initially balks, the dribbler raises a salient point: why would Howard dangle the gem if he had no intention of selling it? When the day broke, Howard had no idea that his scheme involved Garnett leaving his championship ring behind as collateral. THe minute Garnett is out the door, Howard takes a hop, skip, and jump down the street, and it’s in the hands of a pawner in exchange for $21,000.
There’s much scuzzy fun to be had, but nothing tops a moment of unexpected sensuality between boss and employee. Pretending that he’s in a cab, Howard hides in the closet, sexting Julia as he watches her prepare for his arrival. Howard is based on a real-life character who worked alongside directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s (Daddy Longlegs, Good Time) dad in the Diamond District back in the day. For a brief moment, we’re granted full access to Howard’s charisma; we understand what drove the Safdies to fashion an entire feature around him.
The performances are all fully realized — with John Amos stealing the show as the effing legend in 33F — but Sandler’s fast-talking schemer is unlike anything we’ve seen from the actor. In the absence of baby talk and Dennis Dugan’s flat-as-a-flounder pacing, Sandler has found his match in Howard Ratner. And while the brothers aren’t able to shake all the obvious tropes — dangling a character head first out a window, a gag involving a file and a security door, etc. — their vision is singular enough to keep it interesting up until the ending…well, just ends.