The Safdies and the Sandman Struck Gold With Uncut Gems

A24 has been building up an unparalleled catalog of indie films over the past few years, seeming to always find the right director to pair with the right actors at exactly the right time. They helped bring the Safdie Brothers to a wider audience with their underrated 2017 movie Good Time which helped spur on the Pattisance, and with Uncut Gems they have helped the Safdies find the masses. As anyone who has seen the Uncut Gems memes flood their Twitter timeline can tell you the movie checks a lot of boxes just with the trailer alone. There was the delicious irony of Adam Sandler after shoveling uninspired rom-com after uninspired rom-com down our throats for about a decade then deciding to remind us he has actual acting chops. It features the indie movie darlings brothers Bennie and Josh Safdie directing, and is all topped off by the gritty backdrop of New York City and Pitchfork approved Oneothrix Point Never on the score. What I’m saying is that yes while this movie will undoubtedly be used by art school students in vain attempts to impress women at cocktail lounges for years to come, those students will be justified in doing so because it’s still fantastic.

The Safdie brothers have been harnessing chaos their whole careers and they brought the close quartered chaos of the diamond district to life in Uncut Gems. The dialogue is relentless constantly bombarding you with blink and you’ll miss it style quips and barbs. Just like what will happen when you walk the city of New York groups of voices talk over and around one another creating a symphony of profanity. At the center of this clusterfuck is proud Jewish diamond salesman Howard Ratner, played masterfully by Adam Sandler. Howard is a walking diamond district stereotype with his twin loves of basketball and financial gain, and that makes sense seeing as we need a man who was born in and molded by this environment to properly guide us through it. Howard functions as glue holding his business and the story together, and Sandler nails his portrayal with the performance of a lifetime. 

(Slight Spoilers ahead)

Sandler, Garnett, and Lakieth Stanfield in fictional KHM Jewelers

Uncut Gems was produced by Martin Scorsese and has many parallels to one of his earliest films Mean Streets. The later film stars Robert Deniro and Harvey Keitel, where Deniro plays a bold and brash outlaw from New York City who owes one of his friends are large sum of money that he continuously avoids paying (sound familiar?). Mean Streets, like Gems for the Safdie’s, was not Scorsese’s first movie but it was his first with a wide release and serious studio backing. Both films document the seedy underbelly of New York at a very specific juncture in its history so naturally that you feel like some of the footage may have been lifted from real life. While Sandler is taking a considerable amount of praise for his work here several first time actors were cast and stole the stage in their own right. Seemingly dozens of characters were plucked straight off of 47th Street and cast to give the film that extra layer of authenticity. In addition, there is Howard’s brother in law’s top collector Phil played by Keith William Richards who conveys a menacing street tough with ease.  However the performance that really brought the movie an air of authenticity that helped validate the rest of the Diamond District goofballs was Kevin Garnett’s stellar performance as himself. Garnett showed his chops as an actor by being a stable focused force in the room as chaos unfolded around him. Even smaller parts like the pawn shop owner, the unnamed gambler that explains betting rules to Julia Fox’s character, and Mike “The Pope” Francesa acting as Howard’s bookie take you out of Hollywood and place you right in the thick of Midtown Manhattan. The actors who became the casino gambler who invites Julia into his room and helps her navigate the casino has a real life story that makes his character that much more interesting. Josh Safdie literally met that guy the day before shooting and spontaneously decided to throw him in the movie writing his character that night, just because he knew that he felt of that universe. That anything goes mentality is what give the Safdie brothers’ movies their distinct touch.

Now let’s delve into the nitty gritty of the film. The most captivated I was the entire movie had to be Howard’s adventure to see The Weeknd perform at a nightclub in Chelsea. The beginning of the scene song choice of Amen by Meek Mill shows the great taste of the music director and their eye to detail cause of course that song was dominating clubs in 2012. This song is also a great choice because of how often it references bottle service as the intro to the scene is lit by sparklers flying from bottles. Anyone who goes out in the city can relate to Howard shoving past hordes of people as he makes his way towards who he’s here to see, and the Safide brothers consistently do a masterful job of communicating how tight spaces are throughout the movie. He goes to the club to meet Demanny, Howard’s right hand man played by Lakeith Stanfield who goes left on him more times than Howard can count, who was supposed to have the titular black opal returned from Kevin Garnett. Quick sidebar, I saw a trailer for no less than seven Lakeith Stanfield movies waiting to see this movie, this man quietly ran 2019. The lighting in the scene takes a turn as The Weeknd, the man everyone is here to see demands black light. A beautiful shade of blue engulfs the club contrasted only by Demany’s bright orange hoodie which reflects off of other characters face in a beautiful manner. This scene shows the Safdies at their most creative and neon soaked. 

While I understand Safdies fast pace was intentional it also left many plot lines unresolved. There’s Howard’s disgruntled employee who is simply disregarded with a singular shot. Characters like Howard’s mother are introduced with no rhyme or reason and then gone immediately. Demany disappears the entire third act. A deeper look into Howard’s relationship with these people might have shown us more about them and why they do what they do, though there is something to be said of the chaos of these constant introductions and abandonments and what it says about how Howard lives his life. I honestly wouldn’t have been mad if this film was three and a half hours instead of two hours and fifteen minutes, hell I’d be down to watch Howard watch that whole game play by play. The Safdie brothers create such a rich world that it literally hurts that stories may never be drawn from it again. It makes sense that the script was originally written with a TV show in mind. Praying for a litany of deleted scenes or an extended director’s cut.

The actors here often say more with their facial expressions than their dialogue. You can see the disdain and months of Howard’s broken promises just by how Dina’s character looks at him. Arnold’s eyes convey a fiery anger towards Howard but also occasional amazement that he would take the situation he’s in so lightly. Towards the end of the film Arnold displays all of these feelings followed by eventual resignation and happiness due to one of Howards crazy schemes finally working out. Adam Sandler somehow makes you root for a completely unlikable character. A bad husband, father, terrible businessman, and friend. Howard represents the winner who never wins. His charisma is all he has to rely on to see him through and for a moment it seems to have done it only to be dashed in second. Howard is similar to the protagonists of Greek tragedies in this way. Atonement is necessary for his actions both portrayed and left out the movie. Despite all this Howard is still smiling because he left his world on top. 

Most interestingly of all however is where this movie leaves the people who made it. Will this lead to an acting boom for weird looking guys from the diamond district? Is this the first and last time we see Julia Fox in a movie? The talk of the Oscars was that Gems was snubbed of any nominations, and in a way that leaves the Safides maybe not in a better position than being nominated but still a uniquely enviable one. They’re the young auteurs who were too cool for the Oscars and who made Adam Sandler a serious actor again. What’s next for the Safdies, and whats next for the Sandman? We can only hope the worlds they bring us to next are as chaotic and funny and real and wonderful as the one they brought us to in Gems.

Note from the Editor: Dante sent this into me a loooong time ago, like way closer to the release of the movie and for various reasons I did not get it up till now, he is not extremely late to this movie and tryna cash in now. My bad!

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