Between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Midtown Manhattan, pullulating with hawkers and dealers and prospective patrons, the Diamond District is a prominent interchange of the global diamond industry and an economic mecca for those intending to buy diamonds, jewelry, or various trinkets containing the same. As a bastion of brick-and-mortar enterprise in an era dominated by both the Internet and pristine commercial shopping centers, it is the streetwise economic sibling of New York counterparts such as the Financial District, and its grungy gusto has long since continued to hold favor. Mingling with hawkers, dealers, bookmakers, and the cacophony of urban chaos, parting this madness as a diamond dealer with an accent as recognizable as it is local, Howard Ratner is the loudmouthed protagonist of the latest feature from Benny and Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems. This propulsive entertainment is nerve-racking and immersive, deftly using documentary realism and a relentless soundscape provided by Daniel Lopatin in order to engulf the viewer with menace and convey the lowlife welter pursuing Howard through the hills and valleys of his gambling addiction.
An addict as a protagonist, Howard is a lowly, amoral character, lost in the night alleys and shadows of hedonism and cruelty; but if cinematic history has revealed anything about its countless protagonists, it is that heedless and amoral characters can be fascinating, and Howard as a character is fascinating, enduring the merciless soundscape and weathering an addiction that always misleads him, allowing the viewer to experience vicariously his volatile decisions. This experience is undeniably that of addiction at one remove. But the fascination of the film remains that of its protagonist, while the other characters as well as the story are in many ways insufficient and dissatisfying. Although Uncut Gems features the notable performance of Adam Sandler and compels attention with overlapping sound and documentary realism, propelling a story of relentless pressure and anxiety, it never becomes more than what it is; relying on characters exhibiting a variety of superficial bluster but lacking idiosyncrasies and depth, and on an aleatory cosmic vision bookending the story, it ends up deflating and unconvincing rather than revelatory, a nerve-racking and propulsive film that makes compelling entertainment but inadequate art.
After sweeping through a kaleidoscope of graphic matching, moving from a pell-mell African mine to a diamond—the “uncut gem” titling the film—to the colon of the protagonist, the film introduces Howard’s chintzy milieu: the blocks of 47th Street in the Diamond District, the nearby apartment where he keeps his mistress, and the suburban home of his neglected children and wife. But the centerpiece setting of the dramatic action is the jewelry shop. It is a gaudy repository of watches and diamonds, jewelry and trinkets, consisting of glass display cases and bullet-proof windows surrounding a double door and vestibule accessible only by a buzzer. The welter of intensity surges in the shop when Demany, assertive and churlish, scouting customers for Howard’s business, brings in a towering and opulent Kevin Garnett, still playing for the Boston Celtics in 2012. Having received the majestic African opal, Howard spends some time ogling over what he has acquired, exhibiting the possessiveness of a latter-day Gollum. As a passionate basketball fan, Howard persuades himself to exhibit this alluring curiosity for Kevin as an encouragement of his patronage, and of his friendship—for Howard is never above serenading to get what he wants. But Kevin, inspecting it with a loupe, becomes likewise possessive of this opal that enchants him, shattering the display case on which he has been leaning. The jumpy sonic thrill of the shattering exemplifies the film’s soundscape, which converts ordinary events and minute accidents into pulsating, portentous moments building up to what seems to be a looming cataclysm, a deadly cosmic disaster.
The psychological mainspring of this malign misfortune is the gambling addiction around which Howard has built his business and his lifestyle. Because Howard runs a jewelry business with all its legitimate trappings, his extraneous interests and discursive gambling are at first benign, a passionate distraction; but the story quickly reveals that this is not passion, but addiction. Howard is not a jeweler but a gambler financing his addiction with jewelry. The story follows from this premise, revealing his predictable actions and explaining those portentous moments evoked by the music and the soundscape. Howard has bought the African opal intending to auction it for a profit, but gives it to Kevin—in itself a gamble—hoping to parlay Kevin’s interest into further business; and this moment of inspection and exchange catalyzes a dizzying desperation that entails the method (that of a gambler) of one step forward, two steps back. Howard’s trajectory is pitiful and pathetic and masks its own nature: his future, and any possibility of his triumphing over addiction, are illusory. Like the African diamond mines replete with riches, Howard’s life exists in a darkness that is subterranean. The story chronicles his futile efforts to reach the sunlight.
These efforts are impressive, attesting to the tireless performance of Adam Sandler. His bluster and braggadocio make him unlikable as a schmoozing and narcissistic addict; but he is entertaining and sometimes pitiable—making bets and chasing the opal, tracking down Kevin, bargaining with his creditors like a fractious child. Outside this amusing whirlwind, the portentous soundscape, and the documentary realism whose cutting and rhythms suit the story, Uncut Gems is less compelling. The secondary characters, lacking the brio and showmanship of Howard, are often alluring, but they are paper-thin: the film briefly touches on the quasi-mystical ancestral juju exuded by the opal that enchants Kevin, but it is merely a diversion, and Kevin’s character is unexplored; Dinah Ratner (Idina Menzel) and her family are peripheral, and in the scenes in which she appears, Dinah is merely contemptuous, embittered, and uninteresting; Julia (Julia Fox) exhibits more complexity than any other secondary character, developing in prowess and initiative—but remaining minor and dependent on Howard.
The heavies hired by the disgruntled Arno, the brother-in-law of Howard, are cruel and ruthless, and they do the dirty work, their interest being money. This of course is what motivates these characters and compels them to parasitism and cupidity; for money is the lifeblood of Howard’s milieu, the primary attractant of these flies fluttering over a carcass. But while these are characters whose motives stem from obstacles that Howard has created, one often regards them with mild condescension and admires the heedless mettle with which Howard asserts himself. He parries every menace with endearing self-acceptance.
Although Uncut Gems succeeds as an entertainment, it has other problems than those of its secondary characters. Its opening and closing sequences try to anchor the context to a grand cosmic vision, of which Howard’s life is a parable; but by trying to amplify the significance of Howard’s life, this vision falsifies it, depriving it of the authentic shallowness underpinning the story. This shallowness is that of nihilism—befitting Howard’s gambling existence—and his fate owes as much to willfulness as to random and meaningless misfortune. The vision bookending the film is hollow because it attempts to deepen its nihilism with a cosmic breadth, while deepening neither Howard as a character nor the story and its components. The final sequence especially feels like a hurried Hail Mary, a hollow postscript confirming what the story has confirmed throughout: Howard is a cosmic pawn, human roadkill, and his story is a curiosity satisfying the voyeuristic and the vicarious. In spite of the compelling and immersive realism, the propulsive soundscape, the nerve-wracking entertainment, and the impressive performance of Adam Sandler, the film’s treatment of Howard is that of a human specimen, a pinwheel blown by distant and unidentifiable winds, and nothing more.
This sonic whirligig of greed, gambling, and nihilism is compelling, entrancing the emotions as they are dragged through the vicious mire of 47th Street. It is unfortunate that Uncut Gems, glorious and grating, underperforms while overfilling with all that is jittery and intoxicating. Like delicious dessert, it is both irresistible and insubstantial.