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'Uncut Gems' Revels in Chaos

Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie — 4.5/5 stars

Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems."
Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems." By Courtesy of A24
By Connor S. Dowd, Crimson Staff Writer

“Uncut Gems” is a movie about control. Howard Ratner, played brilliantly by Adam Sandler, is a New York City jeweler with a severe gambling problem whose life painfully unravels despite his desperate attempts to fix it. This film is not a cautionary tale, nor is it a story of redemption — it is a portrait of one man’s steady, irrevocable loss of power.

Even as he cries, begs, and screams on screen, Ratner does little to engender sympathy from the audience because it is hard to attribute blame for his struggles to anybody other than himself. His slimy appearance, gratuitous cursing, and apparent disdain for his responsibilities as a father cast him in an immediately unlikeable light. Nonetheless, it hurts to watch power being wrested from his hapless hands at every turn. The experience of watching “Uncut Gems” is one of relentless, visceral discomfort.

The movie follows Ratner as he attempts to pay back his gambling debt by selling the titular “uncut gem” that he sources from Jews in Ethiopia; his primary setbacks arise because each time he gets lucky and makes some money, he turns around and places yet another bet. Among its many strengths, the film succeeds as an exploration of addiction. As Ratner squanders chance after chance for redemption by relapsing into gambling, his nerves become increasingly fraught and his eventual downfall feels more and more inevitable. Through the very experience of watching Ratner’s fleeting highs and relentless lows, the audience is made to understand the frenetic, frustrating nature of gambling addiction.

Nearly every other character in the film takes power away from Ratner at one point or another. Debt collectors pursue him and threaten him with physical violence throughout the film. NBA player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) borrows his valuable Ethiopian gem for a little bit longer than he was supposed to. Ratner’s young employee Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) holds power over him because he single handedly brings Ratner a large portion of his clientele (including Garnett). His wife (Idina Menzel) exerts her own power over her husband by demanding a divorce despite his protests. Even R&B artist The Weeknd makes a brief cameo in which he temporarily tempts Ratner’s younger mistress away from him at a performance.

The film revels in its portrayal of human cataclysm. Audiences bear witness to shocking violence, crippling addiction, a crumbling marriage, disappointed children, misogyny, antisemitism, and pure humiliation. Nearly every scene brings with it a new conflict, very few of which achieve any satisfying resolution. Ratner is impossible to root for, but his unmistakably human flaws make him too pitiful and, frankly, too alarmingly relatable to dismiss. “Everything I do is not going right,” he sobs to his mistress Julia, expressing a painful, universal sentiment of powerlessness. Ratner embodies some of our worst tendencies as people, but the very fact that we can recognize some of those very tendencies in our own actions makes his demise all the more upsetting.

The only element that prevents “Uncut Gems” from descending into absolute chaos is the impressive control displayed by the film’s cast and crew. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie do an excellent job of creating the film's opulent-but-grimy aesthetic and managing its relentless pacing. Virtually every cast member gives an incredible performance. Sandler, in particular, plays the role of Howard Ratner in full command of his talents. He has played many lovable goofballs throughout his long career in light-hearted comedies and rom-coms; here, he plays a repulsive goofball in a gritty thriller with impressive authenticity. Newcomers and relative amateurs give equally commendable performances, from Julia Fox making her film debut as Sandler’s needy but genuinely caring mistress to LaKeith Stanfield brilliantly playing a role totally unlike the one on FX’s “Atlanta” that catapulted him into the spotlight. Even Kevin Garnett, unlike many of his NBA peers, is legitimately convincing as an actor.

"Uncut Gems" comes at the dawn of our very own roaring 20’s, and the Safdies’ dark portrayal of greed and excess offers a fresh commentary on the consequences of those vices. However, instead of exposing the flaws in the classic vision of the American Dream, “Uncut Gems” focuses on the aimlessness of luxury. Ratner lives more than comfortably, with a beautiful family, a beautiful home, and a steady job. It is his own addiction-fueled discontent that renders his livelihood so fragile. While characters like Jay Gatsby personified a great American striving, Howard Ratner embodies a great American dissatisfaction: a phenomenon unique, perhaps, to wealth in the 21st century.

—Staff Writer Connor S. Dowd can be reached at connor.dowd@thecrimson.com.

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