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UNCUT GEMS: CONTROLLED CHAOS

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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