Everything you may have heard or read about Uncut Gems is true: it’s tough to watch, especially at the start. In-your-face filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie throw a lot at us in the opening sequence, which establishes the tone of their movie and the frenzied life of its protagonist, a high-stakes jewelry store owner (Adam Sandler) who works in the diamond district of Manhattan. Anyone who’s ever spent a little time there will recognize the cacophony of life on West 47th Street, both inside the showrooms and on the sidewalk. This is amplified by Daniel Lopatin’s score, which is loud and every bit as off-putting as Sandler’s character—at first.
It’s Sandler’s inherent likability that helps make Uncut Gems palatable. His character is insufferable but somehow fascinating, a compulsive gambler and wheeler-dealer who traffics in sports memorabilia and other valuables as well as jewelry. He not only skirts disaster at every turn, he courts it, making one risky decision after another. Sometimes he comes out ahead, sometimes not, and he seems to accept this perpetual high-wire act as the norm in his life. Even taking that as a given, the crush of incidents that occur back-to-back over the course of the film push Sandler out on a ledge, literally and figuratively.
He’s impressed by one of his newest customers, NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), and foolishly loans him his latest acquisition, a misshapen rock mined in Ethiopia and studded with precious stones. The moment he lets this highly desirable piece out of his hands we know he’s made a mistake. He’s borrowed against it in a complicated domino scheme that involves thugs and hoodlums who mean it when they threaten violence.
Meanwhile, Sandler makes a half-hearted attempt to maintain a family life in the suburbs with his enraged wife (Idina Menzel) and kids while keeping a mistress (Julia Fox) housed in a Manhattan apartment. Here again we see him on a collision course that’s bound to end badly. Everything he does is in extremis.
The Safdie brothers, cinematographer Darius Khondji and editor Ronald Bronstein (who also shares screenplay credit) maintain a frenzied pace, with occasional moments of relief—like a family Passover Seder—and make even the most absurd turns of plot play realistically. Nothing feels contrived or out of place in the world that Sandler’s character inhabits.
Ultimately, my only criticism of Uncut Gems is that it takes a long time to play out and feels it. Even so, it’s a movie that commands your attention and lingers afterwards, as does Sandler’s intensely focused performance. This tops everything he’s done before and is worthy of an Oscar.