LFF REVIEW: “A massive shock to the system” – Uncut Gems (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“Feels like a constant adrenaline shot to the system”

The predictions for this year’s London Film Festival (LFF) surprise film was always between two highly anticipated pictures, Parasite and Uncut Gems. Even with the tease of “who likes musicals? Who likes cats?” didn’t convince the crowd as the Safdie Brothers, introduced their latest effort to the crowd. For those lucky enough to grab tickets, they were in for a stormy ride as we are whisked into the world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). While previous surprise films at LFF have been crowd pleasers (Lady Bird) or tamer affairs (Green Book), Uncut Gems was a massive shock to the system for those expecting a relaxing evening.

In New York, Howard Ratner has the opportunity of a lifetime to make some serious money after a rare opal arrives on his desk. Basketball player Kevin Garnett, becomes obsessed with the gem and the supposed power it possesses, Howard finds himself in debt and on the run. Couple that with his addiction to gambling and Howard is in for a tough week as he struggles to juggle money issues, a fractured relationship with his children, and a mistress with a taste for the high life. This probably all sounds overwhelming to experience and I won’t lie that it really does throw you in at the deep end and doesn’t care if you sink or swim.

Even as the opening credits roll, we are immersed in  Howard’s world as people constantly talk over each other and conversations are cut short or just left hanging. It works perfectly as an introduction to his frantic life and serves as a reintroduction to the energy that the Safdie Brothers achieved so fantastically in their previous film, Good Time. The similarity between the two films leads are clear to see as they both live in the moment, hoping to make a break but always being pulled back in by the lure of a bigger win. This film feels like a constant adrenaline shot to the system, as though every couple minutes when you feel yourself relaxing, another spanner is thrown into the works, throwing off the audiences and Howard’s equilibrium. 

While many have lauded the performance of Sandler as his best since Punch-Drunk Love, this film relies more heavily on his comedic charisma than it does the romantic-comedy skills he had perfected with Drew Barrymore in the 90’s. Every moment on screen feels fresh and he owns the role with the experience of an actor really enjoying himself. As a character, Howard is constantly looking for success but with a bad temperament that should make him unattractive but somehow his charismatic aura draws people into trusting him. Had he somehow not been so likable and trustworthy despite his clearly questionable morals, this film could have collapsed in on itself. Aside from Sandler, the stand out performance is from Kevin Garnett playing himself, joining other sporting stars Michael Jordan and LeBron James in making the move from the Basketball court to the cinema screen. He plays off some incredible actors and holds his own while also making us eager to see if he’ll do more acting work in the future.

Continuing the links to their previous film, Good Time, composer Daniel Lopatin joins again to provide some incredible atmosphere that really helps dial up the intensity of the film. While the dialogue comes thick and fast, it’s the score that really captures Howard’s energy so perfectly. At times running at a low hum as though bubbling just underneath the surface waiting to explode into an orchestra of synths. The Safide Brothers seem to understand the power that sound has on the cinematic experience and have been able to exploit that perfectly here.

Uncut Gems is the perfect example of a Marmite film. You could watch this and experience levels of anxiety that are unparalleled and have an awful time. However, if you can keep your cool, and take the journey one nail biting experience at a time then you may find yourself having a glorious time. If my cinema experience is anything to go by, the audience will be cheering on a Basketball match that happened seven years ago with the intensity of a world cup final shoot-out. Somehow I am getting excited for rebounds and tip-offs despite never watching a match before outside of Space Jam. If a movie is able to draw me so deeply into a world that I feel completely enthralled in it’s conclusion  then it’s doing something incredibly special. 

Dir: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie

Prod: Sebastian Bear-McClard, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin

Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield

Release Date: January 2020 (UK) – Netflix