Power Forward

Nick Pinkerton on Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019)

Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 135 minutes. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler).

THE FILMS OF JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE move at a hotfoot, thinking-on-your-feet pace, built around fraught and frantic protagonists who can see no further than the next contingency, or around the next corner of the personal maze they’re negotiating. Compulsive and often reckless behavior is a through line in the Safdies’ filmography; from 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed—concerning the misadventures of a female kleptomaniac—onward, they’ve dealt in men and women working desperately to stay one step ahead of consequences. More recently, they’ve centered films on a lovelorn teenaged heroin addict (2014’s Heaven Knows What) and an inept small-time criminal trying to secure his jailed brother’s freedom (2017’s Good Time), subjects that don’t lend themselves to moments of contemplation beyond the address of the present-tense problem.

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), the antihero of Uncut Gems, the brothers’ latest feature and their biggest to date, is a man pursued and nipped at by his compulsions as a fox by hounds. He is an exception to their established pattern only in that his frenzied existence is not, at least insofar as we can see, imposed on him by straightened circumstances or a bad upbringing. Ratner is a comfortable tradesman, a jewelry dealer with a shop in the diamond district, a strip of storefronts on West Forty-Seventh Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where the Queens-bred Safdies’ father once worked. He should be comfortable, anyways—he gets by just fine, being in possession of a Knicks championship ring, a suburban Long Island home stocked with three children and a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates his guts, and a Manhattan pied-à-terre housing his shop employee and mistress (Julia Fox).

From the moment of his introduction, Howard, a gambler and philanderer, is spread too thin, and he then spends the length of the film seeing how much thinner he can go. He has it all and keeps going back for more, more, more, because as much as Howard shows himself capable of love, it’s action that he loves most—risk is his aphrodisiac. We follow him through a knotty series of robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul improvisations, exchanges which involve outstanding sports gambling debts and an Ethiopian black opal, illegally imported in the guts of a dead fish, that Howard has slated for auction. The opal, mined by Ethiopian Jews, catches the eye of Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, representative of the elite black clientele brought through Ratner’s shop by middleman Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). (The movie gets a good sense of the motley, polyglot racial makeup of New York City, though the peculiarities of the relations between its black and Jewish populations are foregrounded.) On the eve of a playoff series, Garnett becomes possessed by the idea that the stone is a good-luck charm. It’s a competitive world, and everybody’s looking for an edge.

Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 135 minutes. Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, and Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler).

In a not unsubstantial role, the now forty-three-year-old Garnett plays his younger self—the movie is a “period piece,” set a little less than eight years ago—with an intensity that will be unsurprising to those who remember his postgame interviews. It’s one of several examples of the brothers’ nonprofessional casting that adds a layer of verisimilitude, splashes of local color, and a touch of the surreal to Uncut Gems: WFAN sports talk staple Mike Francesca has a couple of scenes as a bookmaker, the musician the Weeknd plays himself at the cusp of fame, and Good Times actor John Amos has a very funny deadpan cameo. The movie is the Safdies’ second consecutive feature on 35 mm—Good Time was shot with a higher-grain 2-perf process. Darius Khondji has replaced their previous cinematographer/DP Sean Price Williams, but their visual approach remains familiar: long lenses that lend street scenes a sense of caught-on-the-fly happenstance, close-ups that vibrate with intent focus, and an often-active camera, here swinging with the beat of a multitasker’s overtaxed attention. De-glammed Midtown locations keep the action at ground level, a reproach to thousands of establishing skyline drone shots littering the surplus of NYC-set films that are interested in the city as a backdrop rather than a place where people manage to live. Here, exigencies are considered and geography is precise, down to the practical considerations involved in catching a helicopter to Mohegan Sun, while the calendar is freely tinkered with, as the movie takes place over a compressed, cheated timeline that overlaps a Passover celebration, Howard’s awaiting the results of a colonoscopy, and the 2012 seven-game semifinals series between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.

In making the results of a playoff series a life-and-death matter for an in-too-deep gambler, Uncut Gems owes not a little to 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, a film by another New York moviemaker distinguished by his commitment to capturing the tonality of the city—Abel Ferrara, who turned in a cameo in the Safdies’ 2009 Daddy Longlegs. In its cultural specificities and its humor, however, Uncut Gems is very much its own animal. Ferrara is Italian Catholic, and his background profoundly informed the guilt- and redemption-riven Bad Lieutenant. The Safdies are Jewish, as is Sandler, as is the Safdies’ close collaborator Ronald Bronstein, the director of the 2007 cult feature Frownland who has also helped to write and cut every one of the Safdies’ films since Daddy Longlegs, in which Bronstein starred. Uncut Gems is, more than any film they’ve made, an explicitly Jewish one, replete with a family seder presided over by Judd Hirsch.

Ratner is every bit as secular as the gambling duo Elliott Gould and George Segal in Robert Altman’s California Split (1974)—a movie to which Uncut Gems seems somewhat indebted, not least in the Safdies’ Altman-esque love for the sound of all-American clatter and chatter. In spite of this, Howard still fits comfortably in a tradition of North American male Jewish antiheroes that includes Budd Schulberg’s upstart mogul Sammy Glick, Mordecai Richler’s Benzedrine-driven wheeling-and-dealing dynamo Duddy Kravitz, and Philip Roth’s lust-goaded Alexander Portnoy. (Singling out Howard’s twin obsessions with gambling and sex, the writer and director Paul Schrader, who is, even on his Facebook page, one of America’s most trenchant critics, suggested that Sandler was channeling Bad Jew James Toback in his performance.) What distinguishes Uncut Gems from its literary predecessors is that it makes little attempt to psychoanalyze Ratner, or to understand him as a product of social pressures—while Howard loves to play the victim when things go awry, he is very far from a life of bitter herbs. Where Schulberg questioned in What Makes Sammy Run?, where Richler showed us Duddy’s proximity to the poverty of the shtetl and the drive he derives from the racial antagonism of his French Canadian Catholic neighbors, where Roth lingered over Portnoy’s mommy issues, the Safdies seek not to explain or unpack Howard but only to watch him operate in his element and try to keep up. If anything, Ratner appears as a perfect product of assimilation, a pure animal of commerce, monomaniacally focused on winning and living for the Art of the Deal.

Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 135 minutes. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler).

Uncut Gems is a pricier production than any the Safdies have made before, a logical progression from the budgetary step-up of Good Time, which had the coup of landing Robert Pattinson as a lead. They have not, for their deeper pockets, notably softened or diluted their approach to address a broader audience. Howard is as difficult a character as any they’ve depicted, and Sandler, whose longevity as a star has depended in large part on his everyman amiability, employs that same ingratiating charisma in his bluster, the difference being he occasionally lets slip glances of the ingratiating, feckless bullshit artist behind it. Never has his sheepish smile, here a shade too white, seemed more wily or carnivorous; never has his nervous laugh sounded so edged with mortal terror. In style, too, the Safdies remain willfully abrasive, from their juddering camerawork to the soundtrack’s cacophony, provided again by Good Time composer Oneohtrix Point Never and often cranked, as is the persecutorial jibber-jabber and jackhammer-and-car-horn musique concrète of city life.

With exciting and nervy American movies thin on the vine, it seems almost ungrateful to say that Uncut Gems, which is both, doesn’t signify a great leap forward for the Safdies, but rather the maintenance of a holding pattern. They remain expert at involving an audience step-by-step in the experience of slow-mounting, gut-twisting panic, and are ingenious when it comes to devising out-there situations and then following them, following the logic of character, to their natural conclusion. How, for example, do you practically contend with being locked in the trunk of a car without your clothes on during your daughter’s school play? Or with an angry strongman trapped behind the security door of your store?

Having been through a few of the Safdies’s cinematic ordeals, however, one starts to wonder what they might look like if the brothers allowed themselves to downshift, to look for a gear outside of fifth-with-the-hammer-down. In Uncut Gems, there are gestures toward this, moments that seek to locate Howard’s flailing within a broader context, somewhere between the macro and the micro—an overture shows the discovery of the sought-after opal in a Welo mine, and in nearly bookending sequences, we voyage into both Howard’s colon and a gunshot wound, discovering otherworldly vistas therein. These cosmic flourishes, the sort of thing you might expect from Terrence Malick or Krzysztof Zanussi, seem to stand apart from the film itself, belonging as it does to a world decidedly pragmatic and unphilosophical in bent. Perhaps to ask for more is to ask the Safdies to compromise their worldview, which presents modern life as a breathless full-court press, a heedless hustle and bustle, a constant contest that can’t be won but only, finally, stopped. In such a world, even their downbeat endings—and Uncut Gems is no exception—come to seem redemptive, in the sense that they offer the relief of rest, even the quiet of the grave.

Uncut Gems opens in select theaters on December 13.