Written and directed by the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, as a vehicle for two icons, funnyman Adam Sandler and basketball great Kevin Garnett, Uncut Gems (2019) is breathtakingly profane, alarming, and comic. Most simply described, the movie is one long existential crisis, centered on a character who, from first to last, is dangling on the edge of oblivion and jerking everyone’s chain, his own included. Sandler fully inhabits the role of Howard Ratner, a manic middle-aged jewelry dealer and obsessive sports gambler, seriously in debt and banking on a big score. Not the least of the movie’s accomplishments is making this garrulous operator as appealing as he is appalling.
As in the Safdies’ earlier films—generally set in New York City and more than willing to walk on the less glamorous precincts of the wild side—there’s a strong documentary flavor here. Not only does Garnett play himself but, shot largely in Midtown Manhattan and seasoned with other nonactors, the movie is steeped in—almost dedicated to—local color, in this case, that of the Forty-Seventh Street Diamond District. Like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the Safdie brothers are native New Yorkers. They grew up partially on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with their mother and stepfather and partially with their father in Forest Hills, the same Queens neighborhood that spawned the Ramones.
The brothers have a shared worldview and a quintessential protagonist. Homo safdiens is a desperate character—single-minded yet scattered, temperamentally outrageous and increasingly frantic, monumentally lucky but also cursed—a guy who, not unlike a certain kind of filmmaker careening from one crisis to another, connives, blunders, and improvises his way to the metaphoric end of the night.
“It’s almost impossible not to root for him, but even if you don’t, Howard Ratner will not be denied. Nor will the filmmakers’ compassion for him.”
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