Howard Ratner is an asshole. He's an asshole to his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel). He's an asshole to his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox). He's an asshole to his kids (who he, and we, hardly ever see). He's an asshole to his employees, including Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), as he sells diamond-encrusted baubles out of a cramped showroom in Manhattan's diamond district. He's an asshole to regular people, like receptionists and bouncers, and he's an asshole to famous people, like Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett) and The Weeknd (The Weeknd). And he's especially an asshole to anyone he owes money to—which is a lot of people, chief among them being Arno (Eric Bogosian). And since Arno is also related to Howard, he really gets treated like shit.
It's not a coincidence that the first images we see of Howard are obtained via a colonoscopy, but even when the camera slides out of Howard's posterior to his exterior—he's played, and played remarkably, by the version of Adam Sandler who is an amazing actor in good movies—there's still something that feels shitty about the guy. Howard never stops wheeling and dealing, and in the hours we spend with him, he says maybe two or three things that are true. The rest of the time, he says whatever gets him what he needs: to get paid, to get laid, to get let out of the trunk of his car, where Arno's thugs have locked him after smacking him around and stripping him down.
Sandler rarely leaves the screen in Uncut Gems, and the plot is basically Howard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. That isn't a shock, considering Uncut Gems comes from brothers/writers/directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, who party-crashed art-house theaters with 2017's twitchy, electric Good Time (in which Robert Pattinson was the one playing an asshole having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day). Uncut Gems is larger in scope, but like Good Time, its deadened core is a moral vacuum; both films take place in the no-man's-land where society's walls crumble, and where those who look out only for themselves can navigate the rubble. The Safdies aren't interested in morality tales but amorality tales, and their stories' no-holds-barred recklessness, while at first freeing, steadily grows exhausting.
Thankfully, the Safdies also know how to shoot, cut, and score like nobody else—a sentiment presumably shared by Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer of Uncut Gems. (Does this mean Adam Sandler movies count as cinema?) There's an anxious, addictive energy to Uncut Gems, and the Safdies' choppy, rapid-fire cuts coalesce into a surreal landscape of prismatic hues, blaring fluorescents, and sharp LEDs, all while the analog synth score by Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) adds to the lurid beauty. Like Good Time, the simultaneously sprawling and catastrophic Uncut Gems actually feels like the parts of New York where the tourists don't go—where long blocks and dark, narrow halls are kludged together with grimy brick and relentless hustle.
But while Good Time ostensibly centered on a fractured fraternal bond, Uncut Gems has no such ties: Howard always feels alone as he bounces from misadventure to misadventure—from fights with Dinah to fights with Julia, from making threats to getting threatened (and sucker punched). He's a guy playing dangerous games that he's almost smart enough to win, and the only thing he cares about more than himself is a rare opal that may or may not have "magic powers."
Uncut Gems is a very Jewish movie—early on, Demany characterizes Howard as "a fuckin' crazy-ass Jew," and while just about every scene in the movie is stressful, one of the less stressful moments takes place at a relatively relaxed Passover seder, where much is made of Dinah still fitting into her bat mitzvah dress and where we meet Howard's affable father-in-law (Judd Hirsch), who's soon to be one more unlucky schmuck in one of Howard's dumb-ass schemes. But despite all that, Uncut Gems feels particularly well suited for its Christmas Day release: Here we are, in the midst of a season when acquiring shiny things is paramount, when there's never enough time, when even the best plans fall apart, when family feels like an unwanted obligation, and when everyone is this close to turning into an asshole. Happy holidays.