Movie Review: The relentless ugliness of “Uncut Gems”

Film Review - Uncut Gems

Howard Ratner is the kind of irritant that never lets up, never allows you a moment’s relief.

The constant tirades on the phone, shamelessly ranted out in public, the empty threats, the impulse-control explosions of profanity in inappropriate places, the general shiftiness that makes everyone in his presence feel that this lowlife is somehow hustling you — it’s all of a piece.

Add in the excuses, the endless torrent of lies and blame-shifting in a braying voice that rarely stops to take a breath.

“I’m broke!” “That wasn’t my money!” “Last time wasn’t my fault. We TALKED about that!” “I’ll handle it! I’ll handle it!” “I’m gonna need a couple weeks on that.” I’m begging you…” “Don’t be mad at me!” “I happen to be a litigious individual!” “It’s in the safe.” “I left it on Long Island.”

This guy is grating as only Adam Sandler could make him.

Sandler may not show us anything that’s new in his limited repertoire in “Uncut Gems.” He just serves up his two or three notes of range relentlessly and often at top volume as this gambling jeweler juggling his business, family, marriage and sickness, risking ruin, injury or worse.

The effect is a movie that has a couple of great scenes tucked into a brilliantly excruciating tale that will not let go of its feeling of dread, or its manic energy.

If they gave Oscars for Most Unpleasant Performance — and they don’t — Sandler would be the cinch that many are saying he is for Best Actor. I see the same expressionless, nuance-free stiff he’s always been, this time with a goatee, ugly bling, coarse patter and an unfiltered rage that at least this once seems motivated by something. It’s born from razor’s edge desperation fueled by an addiction deadlier than cocaine.

If B’nai B’rith issued sanctions for films that embrace ugly stereotypes, they’d be tempted to hand one to filmmakers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (“Good Time”) for the nasty “New York Jew” tropes trotted out in this uneven but often riveting drama about a risk junky who cannot control his worst impulses. Loud, coarse, vulgar, Weinstein carnal, greedy and tribal, donning the yarmulke for a Passover dinner that is anything but pious, it’s right on the edge of cringe-worthy.

Try not to notice the prosthetics the kids wear in the school play scene.

Howard’s sick, and we’re not talking about the colonoscopy that introduces him. He runs one of those tiny jewelry shops “upstairs” from the street life, door-buzzers allowing customers in to get “a deal” on tacky baller bling (a diamond-encrusted “Gremlins” necklace), “fell off a truck” Rolexes and the like.

He works with a former street hustler (Lakeith Stanfield) who socializes as a way of networking potential customers — rappers, athletes, etc. — into Howard’s store.

Boston Celtics center Kevin Garnett is one of the “whales” Demany cozies up to and lands. Ballers love their bling, and dollar signs dance through Howard’s head as he pitches merch to the star and his entourage.

Howard’s married (Idina Menzel is his had-enough wife) with three kids, and is keeping his laziest sales clerk (Julia Fox) as a mistress, in a tacky-swank apartment whose decor mirrors his house, and gaudy/dumpy shop.

The murderous, pasta-sucking Italian Americans of “Married to the Mob” have nothing on the Jewish underbelly of “Uncut Gems.”

Howard knows a lot of bookies, and that’s a problem. Anthony (sports talk show host Mike Francesa) is on friendly terms today. That means the two goons hanging out in Howard’s store, shadowing him around town, must be collectors for Arno (Eric Bogosian, gimlet-eyed menace). Arno’s the guy Howard lies to the most.

Because there’s this big deal. If he can fend everybody off, just close it, auction off this uncut lump of black opals from Ethiopia he’s had smuggled in for big bucks, all his problems will be solved.

Until the next “NBA on TNT” telecast, anyway.

The film begins by showing the opal being mined, and that’s the first major contrivance of a seriously-contrived tale. How would Howard network his way into getting a stolen stone from the mine to New York? No, he doesn’t seem the type and no, his explanation doesn’t wash.

Another contrivance? Garnett, whose name is similar to another gemstone, WANTS that rock of opals. He attaches mythic, playoffs-altering power to it. And that’s how Howard gets in REALLY deep — with Arno, Arno’s brutish mugs, Garnett, the auction house, with family (Judd Hirsch), the wife, the girlfriend and even the kids he’s teaching to gamble on those few occasions he’s home to watch the games he’s wagered on.

As with “Good Time,” the Safdies keep their story on the move, sometimes building suspense, sometimes covering ground simply for the nervous energy that’s expended doing it.

The movie has that juggler’s buzz and drive. Sandler’s never been a physical actor, comic or otherwise. Howard’s hustling, lying, cursing and berating are the engine here — his vocal shtick driving the action. His every-dumb-risk is its reason for being.

But do we root for him? He and Howard are grating in the extreme, first scene to last. There’s not a single noble or relatable character in this. Even the kids, in so many ways potential victims of Dad’s gambling and the family’s collapse, are tuned-out and annoying.

The grating feel of the film is underscored, literally, by an irritating, dated electronic music soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin. The setting is 2012, not 1972.

Few movies have reached as far in treating as a true addiction, a compulsion the gambler cannot resist.

Sandler seems both perfect for this part, and the same old out-of-his-depth Sand-man in it. Put him in scenes with Stanfield, Bogosian and Menzel and it isn’t just Howard who’s eaten alive (a bully easily bullied). They act rings around him.

His best moments are with Garnett, a comic sports fanatic feeding the non-actor in the scene enough to bounce off of, and not outclassed for once.

Whatever the sentiment to honor Sandler for this departure from the unwatchably bad comedies he’s made his fortune through (now relegated to Neflix), I see “Uncut Gems” as a melodrama that could use a little more polish, no matter how perfect its star is at being what he’s always been best at — annoying.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use

Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch and Kevin Garnett

Credits: Directed by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, script by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. An A24 release.

Running time: 2:15

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