Sometimes it’s interesting to see two very different films close together. I have Netflix, and settled comfortably on my sofa to watch “The Two Popes” the other day. The soothing comfort soon made me fall asleep, but “The Two Popes” helped it along. Sorry, but I don’t watch movies for a good rest.
But the next day, in a theater seat even more comfortable than my living room sofa, I saw “Uncut Gems”, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, which they co-wrote with Ron Brownstein. I can’t say that its two and a quarter hours was a better use of my time, but I guarantee that you won’t fall asleep. Far from it.
Adam Sandler plays Howie Ratner, a raving, gambling-addicted jewelry merchant with a wife, three children and a gorgeous shiksa girlfriend, Julia, who also works in his shop. A little more than halfway through the film, Ratner’s wife, Dinah, played by Idina Menzel, tells him he’s the most annoying person she’s ever met. I felt like asking her, “what took you so long?” The entire first hour – with too few exceptions – is spent watching Sandler scream, curse and overact in endless confrontations with various hip-hop clones, in hideous outfits, who scream at him just as loudly. For variety, we see Sandler screaming into his cell phone. Nobody ever seems to sit down, they just run and scream in the midtown streets and in sets scenic-designed for vulgarity overkill.
For a film designed for maximum speed and noise, a story slowly emerges. It seems that Ratner is in huge debt to his brother-in-law, Arno, played by Eric Bogosian. After a confrontation with Arno’s goons, he gets a reprieve when a valuable black opal arrives from Ethiopia. The deal took him two years, but he believes it will pay off the debt and still make him a millionaire at auction. But a new crisis emerges after he shows the opal to Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett, who wants to buy it outright but begs Ratner to let him have it overnight. It’s the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, and Garnett thinks it has mystical powers that he’ll need for that night’s game with the 76ers.
Alongside this story line, Ratner’s personal life is coming apart when his wife demands a divorce after she learns about Julia, played by the gorgeous Julia Fox. The huge family home is in the suburbs, but Julia is snugly ensconced in Ratner’s luxurious apartment near the diamond district jewelry shop. Howie and Julia seem to be genuinely in love, and have cute sex-play games. But he’s also hysterically jealous, which leads to a break-up after he catches her making out in a closet with rap star The Weekend.
Fox is easy to look at, but her story line seemed like simple padding, at first, because it didn’t relate to the main action. At least, not until the film’s climax, when she plays a major role. Still, something nagged at me about the relationship from the beginning. Howie may be fun, for a while, but he is played by Sandler as so ugly and abusive that I couldn’t help wondering why a beautiful girl like her would be wasting her youth on such a dirtbag.
Also troubling is that Howie leant the opal to Garnett in the first place. Desperate or not, an experienced guy like Ratner wouldn’t take that risk. Unless, of course, it’s only a phony plot device to pad the story; which, of course, is what it turns out to be. Not surprisingly, Garnett can’t be found after the game – which the Celtics win – which only allows the filmmakers to show Sandler having extended panic attacks while trying to get it back. He does, eventually, but, except for the clever use of the shop door buzzer (important later on), this whole sequence plays like a tedious music video.
The break-up at The Weekend concert is also clumsy. Howie, while ready to leave in a taxi, orders Julia to move out of the apartment after catching her making out with the rap star. Seeing the loss of her meal ticket, she won’t let him leave. Their long screaming match until she finally lets him go is the low point of the movie.
The next section is sporadically amusing and, thankfully, quieter. Howie has second thoughts about the divorce when he thinks that he’s lost Julia. At a family seder, he pleads for Dinah to try to work things out with him, but she only laughs. Also at the seder, Howie prepares Arno and his father-in-law, played by Judd Hirsch, for the next day’s auction. It was at that point that the Safdies finally got some suspense going, which they maintained for the last half hour of the film.
Naturally, the auction is a fiasco, and Arno is enraged. After getting stiffed again, he gets his goons to beat Howie up, which leads to a tearful – and not very convincing – reconciliation between Howie and Julia. Desperate now, Howie enlists Julia in a wacked-out all-or-nothing bet on the final game of the 2012 Eastern Conference championships. Using Garnett’s payment for the opal, he tells Julia to bet the whole amount based solely on his confidence that Garnett, who believes he’s unbeatable now, will pull off a major victory. Deftly intercutting scenes of the actual game with Howie’s attempts to avoid Arno and his murderous goons, the story is resolved convincingly, but not without a bitter aftertaste.
Idina Menzel seems the only person in the cast who even tries for subtlety. Grotesquely made up to look like the bride of Hellboy (those eyebrows!), she still manages to inject some feminine vulnerability into a role meant to rely solely on tired and offensive Jewish stereotypes.