UNCUT GEMS is perhaps the most unique and certainly one of the best films of 2019 - a surreal, 80s-vibe, darkly comic thriller, in which against all probability I became insanely invested in the largely self-inflicted travails of its hero Howard. As played by Adam Sandler in a role reminiscent of his angry-loveable PUNCH DRUNK LOVE intensity, Howard has a life of unremitting stress. He's broken up from his wife (Idina Menzel) but still enmeshed in Jewish family dinners. He's set up his mistress in a city apartment. His diamond business is doing well thanks to the big music and sports buyers his middle-man (Lakeith Stanfield) brings in, and he's just been smuggled a super-valuable rock containing uncut gems. The problem is that Howard also has a massive gambling problem, and spends the entirety of the film's running time trying to fence the gems to pay the debt. Oh yeah, and did I mention he finances his ever more gargantuan bets with mob loans?
I was initially reluctant to watch this film because I'd heard such extreme reactions at the London Film Festival. People said it was nerve-wracking and intense - like having Adam Sandler just shout at you for two hours. But I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the film was, and how the directors really did give the audience a chance to pause and recalibrate every once in a while - usually in a quieter family scene. But the final act really is super-tense, and just phenomenally well crafted and I was literally on the edge of my seat. I was hugely invested in whether Howard would come through, despite his stupidity, because at the end of the day, the poor idiot is an addict, and actually he's not an idiot - there's something really impressive about his ability to keep spinning stories to keep his debtors at bay. This is Sandler's best performance since PUNCH DRUNK and I was with him every step of the way. It's hard to think of anyone else carrying off this performance.
Phenomenal performance apart, everything about the production and costume design, the cinematography and the use of music is superb. Darius Khondji gives us images that are at times gritty and urban-realist and at times claustrophobic and surreal and at times neon-lit 80s music video. It's like being in a film that's at once recognisably the diamond district and at once something almost fairy-tale like. Most of all, the Safdie Brothers have a confidence with tonal shifts that take us from casinos to auction houses and back again. This film is a tour de force and deserves to be seen. It also deserves far more awards love than it has been given.
UNCUT GEMS is rated R and has a running time of 135 minutes. The film played Telluride, Toronto and London 2019 and is now available to stream on Netflix.
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