UNCUT GEMS (Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie, 2018)
MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Friday, January 3, 7:00
Series continues through January 8
“That was manic, pure mania,” the Safdie brothers narrate at the end of a trailer for their latest film, Uncut Gems. You can hear Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie say more about the film, a manic gem, when they discuss it following the January 3 screening at MoMA as part of the “Contenders” series, consisting of 2019 films that the institution believes will stand the test of time. Uncut Gems is a furious, unrelenting movie that sucks you into its claustrophobic frenzy and never lets go. Adam Sandler is a force, reaching new heights as Howard Ratner, a Diamond District dealer with a gambling addiction. He’s deep in debt to Arno (Eric Bogosian), who has sent his two goons, Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), to make sure Howard knows just how much trouble he is in. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is fed up with him, not in the least because he has an apartment with his mistress, the much younger Julia (Julia Fox), and is not the most reliable father to their children, Eddie (Jonathan Aranbayev, who was discovered on Forty-Seventh St. in front of his parents’ jewelry store), Beni (Jacob Igielski), and Marcel (Noa Fisher).
Howard has a master plan to break free of all his problems by selling a chunk of Ethiopian black opals at an auction, with the help of one of his assistants, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who has lured in Boston Celtics center Kevin Garnett (terrific in his acting debut), who is fascinated by the rare, uncut gems, which sparkle with promise. The last half hour of the film is a brilliant, claustrophobic tour-de-force in which everyone onscreen is physically trapped, just like the audience is pinned to their seats, holding on for dear life. The Safdies, whose father worked in the Diamond District, use a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors as well as famous people playing themselves; the cast includes sports-radio legend Mike Francesa as a bookie, Garment District legend Wayne Diamond as a big-time gambler, Judd Hirsch as Howard’s father, Natasha Lyonne and Tilda Swinton as phone voices, and restaurant owner Nino Selimaj, writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, actor John Amos, the Weeknd, and others as themselves.
Written by the Safdies (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What) with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, Uncut Gems, which has been in process for ten years, is anchored by a career-redefining performance by Sandler, who previously revealed his significant acting chops in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow’s 2009 Funny People. In a performance that will make you forgive him for The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, and Mr. Deeds, among other silly effluvia, Sandler is a whirlwind throughout the film’s 135 minutes, which fly by. Darius Khondji’s camera is practically glued to him, Sandler’s unshaven, gruff face a character unto itself, Howard’s eyes always at least one step ahead of what’s happening in front of him. He’s a dreamer, and although you can’t not root for him, he is far from a likable hero. He is singlehandedly responsible for the dangerous mess he’s in, whether he admits it to himself or not. But he is also a kind of everyman, peering through the looking glass (in this case, the seductive, multicolored opals in the stone), trying to survive in a hectic, frenetic world that can be overwhelming and spin out of control at any moment. You can’t just sit back, relax, and enjoy Uncut Gems; instead, you can’t help but be fully immersed in its nonstop, feverish intensity. “The Contenders 2019” continues through January 8 with such other recent, well-received as Jérémy Clapin’s adult anime I Lost My Body, Sam Mendes’s WWI drama 1917, and Melina Matsoukas’s Queen and Slim.