In Uncut Gems, the wild ride of a movie from Josh and Benny Safdie, a black opal diamond can bring mystical powers. According to one character, it allows you to see the whole universe.
While the universe created by the Safdie brothers is more New York-centric and colored by loan sharks and rogues, Adam Sandler wants to see the entire universe. His universe is that of riches, of a big score that will net him security and safety. His jeweler character, Howard Ratner, will do anything to get ahead of the scoundrels on his trail.
But Howard has a serious flaw. He can't stop gambling, even with money in his pocket. He wins big, he loses bigger. The movie flows like an accountant's spreadsheet, as Howard boomerangs from boom to bust at rapid speed. He uses the jewels he sells in his Brooklyn store to leverage bets and puts himself into a position of rising debt to others, including a scary brother-in-law played by Eric Bogosian.
The Safdie brothers use their trademark jittery camera style to ramp up the tension, with quick shots and overlapping dialogue helping to keep things on edge. There is no slowdown in this movie except for the few scenes in Howard's home, where he fights with a wife (Idina Menzel) who wants out of their helter-skelter life. Howard barely shows up for his kids, coming and going and on the scent of the next big bet. He is the quintessential man who can't sit still, played perfectly by Sandler as a restless schlub chasing blind ambition.
About the black opal. It is a blessing and a curse. Signifying survival and tzuris (the Yiddish word for trouble), the uncut gem of the title is purchased by Howard from an Ethiopian mine on land owned by African Jews who use it to survive in a godforsaken climate. In a great opening sequence, the movie filters ethereal percussion and drums to show the tribesmen reading from the Torah while mining gems. It then cuts to mystical swirling colors of light surrounding the blue-colored pieces of rock.
The colors land on a flashlight with the sound of whispers during a routine colonoscopy undergone by Howard. The highs of a tribal rite are replaced by an earthier low. It is as if the gem's powers have now entered the body of a shady Brooklyn jeweler. As Sandler is called several times in this rambunctious film, he is just a "crazy ass Jew" who is in possession of a brilliant gemstone.
Basketball legend Kevin Garnett enters the picture, playing himself. He arrives at Howard's store as the stone is being delivered and immediately is smitten. Howard agrees to lend it to him in a collateral exchange for a 2008 Boston Celtics championship ring, which Howard immediately pawns for gambling cash. Meanwhile, Bogosian's thugs are after Howard to pay back a major loan, even while Howard skirts them en route to the next gambling hit.
Howard's whole world becomes the opal. He needs it to make the millions he wants to use to escape with his girlfriend and pay off what he owes. He needs to auction it off, but first has to get it back from Garnett while retrieving Garnett's championship ring. Garnett believes the opal ito have shamanistic powers allowing him to play basketball at the highest level. Howard sees it as a cash cow.
The movie continues to spiral upward in pace as Howard's life spirals down. He is beaten, berated, betrayed and on the run from seemingly half of Brooklyn's jewelry district. But he can't stop himself from gambling some more, even if it's to his mortal detriment. He doesn't know when to fold and walk away; instead, pure adrenaline is his guide.
The Safdie brothers excel in claustrophobia and restless desire, just as they did in their last film, Good Times, a poignant tale of a man (Robert Pattinson) attempting a heist to help his mentally disabled brother. Sandler, in the role of his career, is equal parts agitation and exultation, as he celebrates a gambling win while worried about what losses might mean to his well-being.
The Safdie's frame is that of the Jewish experience in a big city, with its rewards and pitfalls surrounding being an outsider who can afford to take chances and live apart from the system. There is one scene where Billy Joel's song The Stranger plays in the background, accentuating that outsider status while showcasing the fact that Howard is a stranger to himself as he cuts off family and friends.
There is a Passover seder where Sandler recites the 10 plagues befalling Pharoah as the Jews attempted to leave Egypt. It is as if whatever Sandler attempts, the plagues must follow. It doesn't help that his nemesis, Bogosian, sits across the Passover table from Sandler.
While the Safdies place no moral judgments on their view of Sandler's misbegotten ways, they are making a deeper statement on the nature of ambition and how fickle a lover it is. It is a profound and tragic film by the end. Just when you think Sandler will find his pot of gold, it always turns out to be a pile of mush.
In one scene, Sandler's daughter is in a play where gold coins spill from her mouth. It is fantasy, of course, but one that Sandler continues to believe in.