' ' Cinema Romantico: Uncut Gems

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Uncut Gems

In Josh and Benny Safdie’s previous feature film “Good Time”, their scuzzball anti-hero might have been fenced in by a police manhunt offering no escape but nevertheless remained so high on his pompous supply that in his white privileged mind he remained scot-free even when in handcuffs, brilliantly evoked in the final shot. The Safdie Brothers’ follow-up, “Uncut Gems”, is its own kind of adventure movie, though its protagonist, jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sadler), is aware of the damage done and his own smallness in the world, illustrated not just it in his mid-movie crying fit but the desperate hilarity of a shot in which he drags garbage cans to the curb. He might well be beyond escape, given the debts he owes and the reckless decisions he makes, yet still convinced he can attain it through one last score. If it sounds rote, the Brothers Safdie craft something thrillingly apart from a traditional heist movie, more like an elaborate house of cards that, by film’s end, has been erected to dizzying, dangerous heights.

For a movie of frenzied realism, “Uncut Gems” begins with a bout of special effects, the camera tunneling into a precious gem found in Ethiopia and then emerging from, of all places, Howard’s colon as we realize he is splayed out on a gurney, under sedation as he undergoes a colonoscopy. It suggests the gem taking possession of him, just as it will take possession of NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing himself, who shows up in Howard’s store not long after the procedure. Demonstrating his propensity for misplace braggadocio, Howard can’t help but show off this priceless stone to such a celebrity, only to have Garnett turn the tables when he, too, falls under the stone’s sway, demanding literal possession of it, at least for a night. It leads to a temporary trade, Garnett taking the rock and Howard taking Garnett’s 2009 NBA Championship ring as collateral, though he immediately pawns the ring to place a bet on Garnett’s game that night in the hopes of making more money and buying back the ring, a maze of logic deliberately presented so that, initially, you can’t quite tell if this talky jeweler is a savant or a schlemiel.

That maze of logic is rendered almost unbearably tense through the film’s astonishing, noisy soundscape. Not for nothing do we meet Howard under sedation and silent, a provocative feint, for as soon as he’s up and on the movie, Howard never shuts up, not just when other people are around but in his own company, broadcasting internal monologues for all the indifferent world to hear. His omnipresent voice, dotted with attempted chummy citations of his conversation partner’s name and extraneous curse words, blends with the cacophony of the New York streets and that of his own jewelry store, where the bulletproof door’s buzzer becomes a recurring comic bit, all of it so grating that the movie seems to be mixed through the soundboard of WFAN, home of professional loudmouth Mike Francesa who, as it happens, is in “Uncut Gems”, as a bookie though mostly here, I suspect, just to add one more element to the overwhelming aural environment. Indeed, Warren Shaw might be the first movie sound editor to approximate the guttural sensation of enduring two hours of sports talk radio – MAKE IT STOP.

And yet, it’s an environment where Howard thrives even as it forever threatens to undo him, rendering his penchant for complicated parlay bets on sporting events as more than a narrative device, a manifestation of the way he lives his life, acting rashly in the moment in the name of some supposed grand vision that typically proves false. He begins the movie with a mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), only to ditch her when she’s unfaithful (too) and then plead with his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), for another go despite their mutual decision to divorce. Menzel, doing an A+ impression of a Real Housewife of New Jersey, receives his words and then hysterically dresses down his plea, his romantic parlay coming up bust. It’s a scene only slightly less pitiful than Howard trying to commend his daughter (Noa Fisher) on her performance in the school play. She doesn’t even make eye contact, treating her own father with as much palpable contempt as Keith Williams Richards’ raspy-voiced loan shark muscle. Howard is only rendered more ridiculous by the costuming, a billowy red shirt making him look as out of place in his kitchen as he does a little while later in the club, a man stranded in an unforgiving society.

These scenes at home don’t just temper the movie’s relentless pace but demonstrate how every aspect of Howard’s life exists in a similar vein, embodied in the nature of Sandler’s performance, where he plays each moment opposite whoever – Menzel, Fisher, Williams Richards, Kevin Garnett – in the same chattery, sweaty key, a father trying to hustle his wife and daughter the same way he tries to hustle crooks and clients. And when his wife blows up his get-romance-quick scheme, he goes right back to Julia, merely railing against his own failures harder, the pointedly ridiculous tattoo she gets of his name underlining an eternal regression to the juvenile mean.

And if getting thrown into a midtown fountain by menacing men would cause anyone else to reevaluate their life, Howard just shakes it off, like a dog coming in out of the rain, as “Uncut Gems” builds to an unlikely denouement in which a 2012 NBA playoff game is incredibly repurposed by The Safdie Brothers, encapsulating how a sporting event can yield as much primal tension as, say, the car chase in “The French Connection.” And if the stressful sequence’s conclusion might feel perfunctory, or even possibly like a cheat, it achieves something more akin to weird transcendence, like Howard has finally hustled his masterpiece into being. Look at how he’s framed and positioned in the final images; he’s finally at peace.

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