Combustible Celluloid
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With: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, The Weeknd, Paloma Elsesser, Keith Williams Richards, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesa, Noa Fisher, Pom Klementieff, Kerwin Frost
Written by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Directed by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
Running Time: 135
Date: 12/25/2019

Uncut Gems (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

And It Stoned Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've always said that Adam Sandler could be a great actor as long as he's challenged, and while that rarely happens, it has happened now. He has perhaps his second-best-ever role (after Punch-Drunk Love) in Benny and Josh Safdie's frantic, caffeinated Uncut Gems.

It's essentially a twisted, over/under gambling story, not unlike Karel Reisz's The Gambler (1974), wherein our protagonist rushes around borrowing things, hocking things, betting on things, and hoping everything evens out, or else he's going to meet an unpleasant fate. It'd be too difficult to outline everything that happens, but it starts with Howard Ratner, who runs a store in the Diamond District of New York City. He gets his hands on a rare, beautiful opal from Ethiopia, hoping to sell it and make a fortune. Howard's assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) manages to get Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself) into the store, and Howard can't resist showing him the opal. Garnett wants to keep it as a good luck charm for that night's game, leaving his championship ring as collateral. Howard hocks the ring and uses the money to bet on the game, hoping to buy the ring back with his winnings. And thus it begins.

Non-gamblers in the audience will be clutching the arms of seats, popcorn buckets, or neighbors' hands as each tumbling-over-a-cliff decision gets riskier and riskier. (You want to scream at him, "just stop!") But the Safdies (Good Time) are clever, vivid filmmakers, not only great with story mechanics, but also with movement and texture; this place feels genuinely lived in. The main trouble with Uncut Gems is that it's so unrelentingly tense, with no letup, for a very long time (2 hours and 15 minutes). It will take time to physically heal before anyone will want to see it a second time. But the potent, spirited Julia Fox makes perhaps the year's most memorable debut as Howard's extra-marital girlfriend.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray release comes with a bonus DVD and digital copy. The transfer is spot-on, lacking any really bold colors, but preserving the tone of the film, and the soundtrack is excellent. The only bonus is a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette that is only sporadically interesting. But this is definitely a movie worth seeking out.

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