Wednesday, January 1, 2020

More Like a Drug

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Review: Uncut Gems (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019)

The Safdie Brothers are not interested in why. They only care about what. What it is to be addicted. What it is to be obsessed. What it is to be 100% aware of your own flaws and stay steadfast on a path of destruction anyway. They showed us this a couple years ago in "Good Time," a story of a failed bank robbery and the ensuing chase from the perspective a grade-A horror of a man played by Robert Pattinson. I would've given them all Oscars, if I got to choose such things. And now they've... nearly... done it again.

"Uncut Gems" is the story of a gambling addict. It feels like addiction, a desire for a high once felt that may never be felt again. "Uncut Gems" is cocaine, meth, speed, whatever. At least that's my personal analog for it. And I don't use such an obvious metaphor lightly. The film is manic, sad, numb, alive, dead, repeat. It also feels like being on a speedy high. Heart racing, high, then LOW, then on the hunt. I felt physically ill during it at times. My muscles tensed. I may choose not to experience it again. I may not be so lucky. I left thinking Hell No! I don't think I can ever do it again. A day later, I couldn't stop thinking...I can't wait to watch it again.

Adam Sandler's work is stunning and perhaps the major reason I want to go back for another hit. I have no qualms in going along with pretty much everyone in saying it is top work for a career of laziness marked by some impressive gems along the way. His Howard Ratner, a horrifically compulsive gambler and jeweler who runs a bling store for the flashy, is someone to hate, but we somehow want him to succeed, to clear his debts, to score big even. Sandler plays this excitable hope underneath each moment of pressure and fear and pain and rage placed in Howard's path. Credit to Josh and Benny Safdie for their directorial work, assured and alive, painfully so, as if they want to inject us with the demented seediness of the world of their New York. They offer us the gift of enjoying ourselves while watching a life dissolve into oblivion. Their characters exist on a fringe we find fascinating because they thrive in downfall at top speed with no governor. This is their vision and they have repeatedly assaulted us with it. We keep coming back for more. We think we can help.

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As a portrait of addiction, "Uncut Gems" may also be considered important, fresh even. So few films are willing to give us such a character and then not let him off the hook. Addicts like Howard have let go of any semblance of control, and this film drops us right into the end of a run of increasingly horrible decisions. It reminds me of the mania of needing another pill, another bump. It makes me ponder what the addicts I have known go/went through on a daily basis, navigating a depraved world at dizzying speed for something that won't help...really. In "Uncut Gems," we get to feel the rock bottom and only that and that's it. Glimmers of hope are but illusions for those of us on the other side of addicts.

The plot revolves around a rock itself, a chunk of black opal dug out of a mine in Africa, which Howard purchases thinking he can auction it off at way more than its worth. He gets Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) interested in it through mutual business partner Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). But that is just the latest in a run of failed gambles that have him owing money to various bookies, including his brother-in-law, played powerfully in a rare performance from Eric Bogosian, and his goons, including the bulldog Phil (played by unknown newcomer Keith Williams Richard). Howard's wife (Idina Menzel) and kids are done with him, but he tries to show up. His mistress (Julia Fox) is as loyal as one of her kind can be, and she is one of the film's most surprising delights both in presence and importance to the film's tricky finale. Every performance is perfectly in tune with the endless frenetic energy of the Safdies, captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji's vital handheld camera. Every performance is as knowing as we are of Howard, as influenced as we are by Howard to want to hang on with him, gritting our teeth. Sandler for Oscar is fine by me.

Watching "Uncut Gems" is knowing you are watching something special. It is an experience, however, that puts me at odds with myself. I have a few issues with its screenplay. A story choice in the end left me incredibly cold, yet, it is a hard drug, after all. And those drugs will you that way too. You love it, you hate it, you're not sure you want to do it again because, now that you've tried it, of course, you know how it ends.

★★★★1/2

Screened at Regal Pinnacle in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

2 comments:

  1. I like how you mentioned Howard is never let off the hook. I agree we don't often see a character like this where they don't make us try to feel bad for him or want redemption. He stays a sleaze throughout.

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    1. Total sleaze. But so compelling and hopeful. All credit to Sandler's performance.

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