Audiences have been comparing Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” to a cocaine rush since it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. I wouldn’t know, but it’s a trip all right: Like a cross between a seat-of-your-pants heist movie and a protracted heart attack, this virtuoso character portrait grabs viewers by the lapels and thrusts them into the mind of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), which is not a place most moviegoers would care to spend much time. That’s because most moviegoers are looking for simple escapism, whereas “Uncut Gems” feels like being locked inside the pinwheeling brain of a lunatic for more than two hours — and guess what: It’s a gas!
Howie runs a by-appointment-only jewelry store in New York’s diamond district, a humming network of tiny stands and private showrooms where specialists handle the bulk of the city’s precious stones. It’s a traditionally Jewish enclave, and everyone there seems to know Howie, who’s well-liked but an obvious loose cannon: A reckless adulterer, an incorrigible gambling addict and a borderline con artist, Howie owes his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian) a sum somewhere in the low six figures, but like always, he’s got a plan that will make him rich. He’s expecting delivery on a massive black opal, which he believes to be worth at least a million dollars.
In an act of pure showmanship, the Safdies show the treasure being hauled out of an Ethiopian mine in an opening scene that plays like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” plunging into the sparkling core of the stone via a gag shot that spins through the cosmos for a minute or so before coming out the other end deep in Howie’s bowels. For some audiences, getting an actual colonoscopy would be more pleasant than the experience of sitting through “Uncut Gems,” which the Safdies have carefully tooled for our discomfort, layering a cacophony of sound and music on top of DP Darius Khondji’s restless handheld camerawork, all of which intensifies the insanity of the overlapping crises in Howie’s life.
The trick is to embrace this unique opportunity to identify with such a high-strung character — a throwback to the maddening, trapped-inside-Sandler’s-head experience of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” nearly two decades ago. That was the film that demonstrated how the right director could take what had long annoyed critics about Sandler’s shrill, stunted man-child routine and leverage it on behalf of more nuanced character studies. Here, the goateed actor dons a diamond earing, false teeth and tinted specs to create an all-new character: an immature grownup with a knack for making the worst decision in any given situation.
While the Safdies no doubt had Anderson’s film in mind when they cast Sandler, the milieu came first. The siblings have been wanting to make a movie about Manhattan’s diamond district for more than a decade. As Josh put it before the big Telluride screening, “It feels like every movie [we’ve made] has been an educational detour for this film,” and sure enough, “Uncut Gems” serves as a summation of their previous work, from the nearly oppressive subjectivity of “Daddy Long Legs” to the anxiety-inducing petty-crime spiral of “Good Time.”
With “Uncut Gems,” the directors have definitely hit the big time, making a divisive but undeniably rowdy character study that rivals such heavyweights as “Taxi Driver” and “Pi” in its single-minded commitment to a certifiable head case. Maybe to Howie, it looks like he’s got everything under control, but even his love life is a mess: While multi-tasking a high-maintenance fling with one of his clerks (sly newcomer Julia Fox) on the side, he’s trying to keep his wife (Idina Menzel, all pursed lips and exhausted patience) and kids happy at home, stepping out of his daughter’s school play to escape the debt collectors hovering in the back row (those perfectly cast goons round out the believably ripped-from-real-life ensemble).
Among Howie’s many stress-management strategies — tricks that work for him better than they do for us, who aren’t accustomed to functioning in red-alert mode all the time — is a tendency to run his mouth, and the Safdies are shrewd not to make him sound any more eloquent than the desperately cornered shmuck that he is. Their darkly comedic script (co-written with “Daddy Long Legs” star Ronald Bronstein) spans roughly a week’s time, prioritizing the moments when Howie must think fast, as when he catches his girlfriend flirting with hip-hop star the Weeknd at a private party, or later, when he orders her to place a massive sports bet while Aron and his thugs sit trapped in the security chamber outside his shop.
His big hope remains the rare Ethiopian opal, which shows up stuffed into the guts of a frozen fish while Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett is browsing the shop for bling. One of the many high-end clients whom celebrity hook-up Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings around, the basketballer represents a new class of American wealth that Howie and his community are all too happy to serve — although the opal, which catches Garnett’s attention immediately, is earmarked for auction the following Monday. Garnett asks to borrow the rock, treating it like a good-luck talisman for the night’s big game, and against any sane person’s better judgment, Howie agrees, scrambling to pawn a few valuable items (none of which are his) so he can place a bet on the outcome.
That Celtics game — which finds Howie shouting at the TV as it unfolds across a series of squirm-inducing domestic scenes — is but one of the sequences in which audiences will find it hard to breathe, feeling their temples throb amid composer Daniel Lopatin’s dialogue-drowning music. Without question, watching “Uncut Gems” is a singular experience, but a tough one to recommend, since most people would prefer not to have their eyes punched and ears hammered nonstop for two hours in what amounts to a relentless sensory assault. Does Howie ever relax? When does he sleep?
More experienced filmmakers know how to modulate the tone over the course of the film, orchestrating both highs and lows, with quiet, reflective moments built in for people to catch their breath. By contrast, the Safdies are committed to sustaining the intensity for the entire running time, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting. In their view, there is variation in Howie’s mood: There are moments when the man feels genuinely happy, and Sandler’s supernova presence radiates extra hot to reflect them. But Howie lives less for the promise of the ultimate score than for the addictive thrill that things could go sideways in a flash. And do they ever when that time comes, making for an ending that will go down in film history — shocking and yet somehow inevitable.