Uncut Gems begins with a colonoscopy and, though artful, ends with an equally intrusive view of a bullet wound. The footage of both events is blended with what the interior of a black opal appears like, its inner luster styled in a pulsating shimmer. The imagery conveys a life succinctly summed up; upon closer scrutiny, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jeweler waist-deep in gambling debts, is full of shit no matter how he dresses up excuses for not having money owed on him at the time. It was at times pitiful and hilarious how he maneuvers out of ruthless debtors’ clutches while leveraging every valuable possession and remaining goodwill for a fresh credit line. A lifeline is more apt. It was never a sustainable policy to juggle this many moving parts simultaneously, i.e., to rob Peter to pay Paul, despite title deeds to a Mercedes-Benz, city and suburban homes, and the affection of women tolerant of his lack of integrity, all attesting to the contrary.
The opening passages following—and building on—that set-up are a frenetic, non-stop flurry of extras and side characters talking over one another at a Diamond District jewelry store when its owner, Ratner, struts in nonchalantly, as if fashionably late to a premiere party. It’s a Bazar for bling by the sounds of it. Still, the film dabbles in big city dreams (no less than Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd and John Amos appear as themselves in some capacity) but our leading man, far from a star-struck fan, refuses to accept a sideline role and act accordingly. Precisely because he’s catered to the occasional celebrity client, that he now rubs shoulders with their galactic personage, it warrants acceptance into their circle. And thus, his fast money dreams and schemes amounting to some assets, yes, but a compulsive affliction financed by loansharks, and sustained by preposterously convoluted fibs, on top.
Having hit big in the raw minefields of Jewish Ethiopia, or so he presumes, it is one New York minute from the arrival of his crown jewel (by mail, inside of a gutted fish) and parting ways with it to Garnett. It is the year 2012, and the star basketball player—still of the Boston Celtics, and with a series to contend for another short drive south in Philadelphia—is instantly captivated by the fist-sized gem, deeming it a good luck charm—his new must-have. Ratner secures Kevin’s 2008 championship ring as collateral despite Demany, the broker, being a slick-talking, shifty number to entrust as the middleman. What does Ratner do when Garnett leaves? Pawn his ring to place a three-way bet on his Celtics game against the Sixers? Break the news to girlfriend-employee Julia before he “fucks the shit out of her”? How about all of the above while dismissing two intimidating Italians there to collect a $100,000 long-overdue?
It’s a tall order to hit some of these parlays without getting kneecapped at one point, and that exactly happens to his bet—placed with a bookie played by Mike Francesa—as the money is intercepted by whomever the Italian duo work for. Ratner nails all the props of a wager that was never placed, and trying to discern insult from injury, here, is akin to engaging divination, and entrusting plot and fate to the arcane machinations of a crystal ball, except Ratner peddles in the same opaque promises of gypsies and fortune tellers. The humiliations don’t stop there; he’s dragged naked into his own trunk in a parking lot for his wife to discover. Played by Idina Menzel in a chilling icy queen rendition, her rancor is visible and long festering, knowing him well having reaped the rewards of his soiled labors. If at one fell swoop, he’s proven a propensity to hock a noted superstar’s prized possession to facilitate his own vice, imagine how exponentially worse a day’s worth of similar mischief does. This hardly matters, as Ratner shakes the embarrassment off as if mild flatulence on a crucial second date, and meets Demany next, at long last to retrieve the opal, having been left hanging all day.
The film’s diegesis and motivations aren’t so crystal clear—yes, there is an auction planned to showcase the opal but from Ratner’s gung-ho wheelings and dealings that isn’t so cut-and-dried. Are we certain it isn’t the disorderly layerings of Ratner’s enterprising at work, a la Kosmo Kramer? His frosty relationship with his wife, Dinah, proves one-sided; he’s too far gone to realize when the jig is up. There is a scene that sees him begging for another a chance followed immediately with him stopping by his other home, presumably, to check on Julia as his entire family waits in the car. The implication is twofold; Ratner is deluded to behave as if Dinah is oblivious or forgiving, and that, in his world, business should dangerously veer this close to family. There is a powerful scene when Garnett returns to his store ready to purchase the opal, proclaiming a shock and disbelief of Ratner’s still brazen, unabashed ways. The film’s climax is a mulligan of that aborted bet, with twice the risk and payoff. That all flies over his head, of course, when Garnett attempts to impart some advice to no use, and the chasm between their stark fortunes is never depicted so harrowingly. Uncut Gems is all that and then some, though mostly a slow slog that purposefully gains in assured tempo and tension with the rising stakes. Its first hour, a cacophony of noise and a mental assault of brutish sets and staging, soon yields to the drama proper unfolding in sprawling environs, all of which is deliberate and perfectly in line with the characterization of a grating, unstable degenerate unworthy of empathy from a afar. The Safdie brothers show a commanding grasp of the chaotic rhythm, with a keen sense for the tragicomic, and it is seldom easy to ascertain when to pull back on compassion to double down on the disdain. It’s a vicious tug of war, sure to drain the viewers’ mettle and test their resolve, and a terrific entry into New York as a hell-scape of one’s own doing.