When it come to gambling movies, there are two separate genres. The flashy kind that portray the thrill of chance, the attraction of life as a rounder, the self-made men who live romantic lives perched on the edge of a dice roll or the turn of a card. Maverick (1994), The Sting (1973), Rounders (1998), etc.
The other genre wallows in the sleaze of it all. The backrooms, the loan sharks, and a protagonist who doesn’t care about winning because it’s losing that gets the adrenaline surging. You see, owing a thumb breaker clarifies the excitement of life. It also justifies your self-loathing. Movies about degenerate gamblers are nowhere near as popular as the other kind, but they can be a whole lot more interesting and insightful.
My favorites in this genre include The Gambler (1974), Hard Eight (1996), California Split (1974), The Hustler (1961), and The Bad Lieutenant (1992). There are plenty of bad movies that have gone this route. Uncut Gems is not one of them.
I can’t yet say that Uncut Gems will join my fave five. I’ll have to see it again. These things take time. There is no question, though, Uncut Gems is a triumph for star Adam Sandler and brother directors, Josh and Benny Safdie.
To begin with, it’s a box office hit. More importantly, it proves Good Time, the 2017 crime-thriller that put them on the map, was no fluke and that they’re growing as filmmakers and storytellers.
Good Time, which is well worth a watch, is a marvel of plotting. The hardest part of telling a good story is answering the And then what happened? question. Keeping a plot moving only seems easy until you try it, and Good Time is ingenious in that regard. This admirable talent also has a lot to do with the success of Uncut Gems.
When we meet Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) he’s already a middle-aged, New York City diamond broker whose gambled his life into a total shamble. His wife hates him so much she refuses to hit him because that would mean touching him. Two of his kids see right through him. The one who emulates and idolizes him soon will. He owes everyone money, including his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who’s not going to allow family ties to get in the way of the violence necessary to get his $100,000.
Howard has a plan to get out from under, though. It involves an illegal black opal. Howard figures he can auction it for at least a million, pay everyone off, and fix his life.
An endless series of complications ensue, many at the hands of NBA great Kevin Garnett (ably playing himself). Mostly it’s Howard’s fault. He lives for the adrenaline that comes with painting himself into a corner and seeing if he can squirm out. This means bigger bets, audacious lies, and a motor mouth that never stops scheming.
There’s a lot of yelling in Uncut Gems. In that way, it’s like a Robert Altman movie — one where everyone talks over each other and you still hear what you need to. But here the volume is turned up to 11. On top of that. most of the movie also takes place in incredibly tight spaces, like Howard’s shoebox of a jewelry showroom, a car, small nightclubs jammed with people and loud music. Normally I hate this approach. Here it works. You’re along for the uncomfortable and claustrophobic ride that is Howard’s life.
As he’s proved in other dramatic turns, especially Punch Drunk Love, Sandler is a superb dramatic actor and completely believable every moment he’s on screen here, which is almost all the time. Even though you know Howard will never rehabilitate himself, even though you know he brought it all this on himself, including the collapse of his marriage and family through flagrant infidelity, your heart still breaks for the guy. You root for him to do the impossible, which is to just freakin’ stop.
When Howard attempts to reconcile with his long-suffering wife, Sandler breaks your heart. He sees her in a dress she wore when they were still young and in love. For just a moment, like an Alzheimer’s sufferer gifted with a brief moment of clarity that cannot last, Howard wakes up to what he’s losing, to all the history they’ve shared, to the women he fell in love with.
Another brilliant moment also serves as a key turning point in the story: a conversation between Howard and Garnett about how it’s not about just making a profit or just winning a basketball game; it’s about hitting it big at every opportunity regardless of the risk. Great, great scene.
The most important scene, though, at least from my perspective, is the Passover feast. The movie is set right around the Jewish holiday, and not by accident. We get to watch Howard and his family celebrate Passover like it’s a tedious chore.
What should matter to Howard — his Jewish faith and his family — what should give him the purpose in life he has instead embraced through gambling, adultery, and crass materialism, holds the same importance to him as, say, cleaning the garage once a year. Everything that would save him is all right there and he can’t see it.
Where things get interesting, though, is that the difference between Howard and his family (i.e., the rest of us) is only a matter of degree. No one takes Passover seriously. Everyone’s worshipping vapid materialism. Everyone’s hitting the slot machine of “more stuff” and Real Housewives and iPhones and bling.
It’s this one scene, this one moment that lifts Uncut Gems into something more than just a nerve-wracking tour of a sick and delusion man’s life. We are all a tribe lost in the excess of excess.
And then there’s that John Amos cameo…
I definitely need to see that again. From Good Time to Good Times.