Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems

On Film / The Daily — Sep 18, 2019
Adam Sandler in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019)

As the Toronto International Film Festival was wrapping over the weekend, critics began ranking the films they’d seen. High—very high—on the lists from Jordan Cronk (Acropolis Cinema), David Fear (Rolling Stone), Daniel Kasman and Fernando F. Croce (Notebook), Noel Murray (The Week), and filmmaker Blake Williams (Prototype) is Josh and Benny Safdie’s raucous Uncut Gems. Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in New York’s diamond district with a gambling habit that has him perpetually and impetuously staking more than he’s got on bets with all but impossible odds. He’s also juggling a marriage in a tailspin and an affair with a young employee. Writing for Sight & Sound, Tom Charity finds the film “falling over itself to tell the tale, the kind of morbid barroom anecdote you can imagine the hoods from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas sharing.” And, as Charity notes, Scorsese is one of the film’s executive producers.

In the Safdies’ last feature, Good Time (2017), Robert Pattinson played a petty criminal with a penchant for putting everyone who crossed his path in mortal danger. If Pattinson’s Connie is forever threatening to explode, Sandler’s Howard might implode at any moment. “The Safdies set their characters loose on the world like bombs without targets, supplementing their street realism with energetic visual sleights—sudden pans, confrontational tracking shots—that make the world feel custom-built for conflict,” writes Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins. “Their usual cinematographer, the essential New York indie stalwart Sean Price Williams, has been replaced here by the eminent Darius Khondji, who pushes the directors’ usual vision towards new extremes, starting with a switch from Williams's textured 16 mm to a richer, thicker 35 mm.”

Uncut Gems is also relentlessly loud. At Slant, Jake Cole notes that the Safdies “always stress the omnipresence of street noise and the chaos of conversation between more than a handful of people, but Uncut Gems sees them pushing the decibel levels of their sound design to new and deafening heights. And that’s before you factor in Daniel Lopatin’s score, a shimmering, ringing chime of synthesizers that evokes light refracting off of precious stones.”

As Adam Nayman suggests at the Ringer, Sandler may not have the range of a Robert Pattinson, but the Safdies know exactly how to channel his persona. Nayman notes that “when somebody calls [Howard] a ‘crazy-ass Jew,’ it’s taken as an affirmation of a peculiar set of superpowers.” The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee found a uniquely Sandlerian humor in both Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), “but it was awkward and intimate, more likely to make one shift in their seat than guffaw. Sandler has an underappreciated ability to connect with the uncomfortable aspects of his more fleshed out characters, embarrassingly so at times, and his latest, arguably greatest, delve into drama pushes this to a whole new level.” Howard is “a man so profoundly irritating to almost everyone in his life that he seems on the verge of getting clocked in the face at all times,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Sandler somehow manages to make him both totally exasperating and oddly magnetic—we watch his foolhardy flirtation with ruin in a state of shocked disbelief that borders on admiration . . . And the movie itself is exhilarating. Just bring a Xanax.”

A24 will release Uncut Gems on December 13. In the meantime, when the Safdies were talking with Variety’s Chris Willman in Toronto, the musical performance in the film from Abel Makkonen Tesfaye—The Weeknd—came up, and Josh let on that the brothers would soon be working with him again “on a bigger thing, still to be determined.” Josh added that “he’s a real cinephile, Abel. Real cinephile . . . I remember when he was living in Paris for a minute. He got close with Gaspar Noé and they were just matching movies all day, all night.”

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