In theory, Uncut Gems shouldn’t be so stressful. It is both a gambling movie and a sports movie, and that means you should know from the start that the climax will hinge on One Big Bet that is either going to score or not.
It should be clear that because Adam Sandler plays a degenerate gambler, things wont be going well for him. That even when he wins a little, he’ll soon lose a lot. The directors, the Safdie brothers, signal from the start that they aren’t interested in romanticizing any part of Howard Ratner’s life. The camera opens on an Ethiopian mine, travels through shafts into an opal’s crystal structure and then, quite literally, out of Ratner’s bowels to reveal that Sandler’s Ratner is undergoing a colonoscopy. That’s what they make of their main character.
Ratner is a purveyor of shiny things, all of them cursed to drag him deeper into agony and loneliness. His stuff — his apartment, his jewelry store, his clothes — clutters the screen, suffocating him even as he spends the entire movie trying to secure the means to accumulate more. He’s a miserable human who can only put himself in circumstances that make him more miserable, and by the end you won’t understand why you want to root for him, even though you will.
If you stop to think, you might guess where everything is headed. There’s no time to think about anything. Uncut Gems will make you empathize with a lying, philandering scumbag because everyone in this movie is a lying, philandering scumbag to some extent. And the movie starts like a train leaving the station and Ratner’s the caboose, and that train gets going too fast to change cars so he’s the one you hitch with. And everything that might get him out of his jam has a caveat attached to it. In Uncut Gems, Ratner’s cycle of self-destruction is perpetual and predictable and god it hurts so bad to watch him zoom past every off-ramp to safety.
And also captivating. I can’t emphasize enough that this extremely painful, ostensibly predictable movie is also transfixing, and not in the car wreck sense. This movie will make you hope for the best like a stupid idiot. Every moment is spent waiting for some score or scheme to pay off, and every once in a while one of them does, reigniting hope for this awful, doomed man who is VERY low on the list of people who deserve to have their happiness fulfilled. Because yes, if Ratner can just get his precious stone from Demany, who lent it to Kevin Garnett, at The Weeknd’s show and get it to auction where, if it even gets a quarter of the money he thinks it’s worth, it might stave off the men who have made it abundantly clear they will break his fucking legs if he doesn’t pay, then everything might turn out OK. And Ratner really doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would just run away to Alaska, even though you, the viewer, would have done so an hour ago if you were in his place.
Yes, the cast is a Mad Libs of actors, but they’re also brilliant. Sandler might get an Oscar nod, but he isn’t the pulse of the movie. It’s everybody else. It’s Kevin Garnett, who plays Kevin Garnett better than anyone will ever play Kevin Garnett. It’s Mike Francesa, who sadly only has two scenes but looked eerily comfortable as an overworked, old school bookie/restaurant owner. It’s Julia Fox, who stole almost every scene she was in as Ratner’s mistress, and whose real life was somehow more badass and batshit crazy than her character’s, and who should be showered with awards as much or more than anyone in this movie that is giving me heart palpitations even as I write about it.
Maybe Ratner would move to Alaska if the people around him weren’t so sickeningly good at being alternately terrifying and sweet and manipulative of a man who they would leave in the gutter if he didn’t owe them or they didn’t owe him. That’s the other thing you should know about this movie: there’s nothing to it, really. No one wants anything more than what Howard wants, and all Howard wants is to get out of gambling debt so he can be free to rack up a gambling debt again. His motivation is that money is his sustenance. There is nothing you should be learning from this film, except that people are largely selfish, and that betting on anything is probably stupid.
Uncut Gems is a series of limbic manipulations with pinpoint accuracy. If any part of it can be described as “feel good,” maybe it’s that: you don’t have to invest any mental energy into it. Unlike some other Big Deal movies this year, it won’t make you re-examine the edifice of marriage, or expose economic inequality’s corrosive tendrils, or anything like that. It has no place in a canon to consider. If there is an Uncut Gems 2, it would and should be illegal except in international waters.
Perhaps the greatest trick that Uncut Gems pulls is that climax, which centers on a 2012 playoff game between the Celtics and the 76ers, so that during a white-knuckle movie’s whitest knuckle moment we’re watching Howard watch Garnett shoot long two-pointers through a CRT TV and yelping every time the ball bounces on the rim and either falls or doesn’t. That is to say, Uncut Gems makes a game we might already know the outcome of just as exciting as it was was when we might have watched it live.
This may be the most accurate sports movie I have ever seen. Whereas a conventional sports movie throws what feels like insurmountable challenges at the protagonists, only to resolve them neatly, in Uncut Gems, the outcome is unnecessary. The point is that you’ve become an emotional hostage. And you don’t have to be a degenerate gambler to know the feeling; any sports fan understands, because what is our favorite sports team if not our very own lying, philandering scumbag who we’ve tethered ourselves to arbitrarily and imbued with unearned loyalty and hope that may never be repaid, and whose feelings we’ll never feel reciprocated?
By the end of the Uncut Gems it dawns on you that you’re just figuratively and literally watching sports, and even in realizing what a dummy, a rube, a sucker you must be to get duped into watching a rerun, you can’t look away as a ball that boing-boing’d in real life during a basketball game years ago boing-boings again, menacingly, because the life of a man you hate is on the line.
A man, mind you, whose colonoscopy you were forced to witness two hours before. Uncut Gems isn’t subtle. From the moment the camera crawls out of a man’s bowels, that filthy feeling is exactly the point. So consider this a warning and an endorsement: you will walk away from Uncut Gems both horrified and impressed, and you won’t be a better person for it. Worst or best of all, you’ll discover that you can empathize with it.