Adam Sandler did not get an Oscar nomination, but that does not mean he did not deserve one for the entertaining and fascinating picture “Uncut Gems.” Sandler plays Howard, a dealer in New York City’s diamond district. He runs a small shop and sells jewelry to people like NBA player Kevin Garnett and anyone else who his partner Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings his way. Howard has a bit of a gambling problem and is also quite abrasive, along with adulterous, and he has a general habit of lying and making promises he could never hope to keep.
The film is directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, who made the 2017 film “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson. “Uncut Gems” is almost like an updated version of “Good Time” set in a different context, but still focusing on a small time crook running through a couple of days of high-stakes desperation and law-breaking. “Uncut Gems” is also a better movie, featuring the same troubling racial politics of “Good Time” but deployed in a much smarter way and not as exploitative of its Black characters as “Good Time” was.
Howard is an exhausting character to follow, as he runs from place to place attempting to carry out his wild schemes and concocting new ones along the way. It is difficult to keep track of, but it does not really matter if you follow Howard’s plots or not, you just have to commit yourself to him and his journey through a particularly wild weekend. A large opal from Ethiopia is a jumping off point for the plot. Howard foolishly lends this expensive new find to Garnett and spends much of the movie scrambling to retrieve it. A bunch of other stuff happens, but we do not need to focus on the particulars of the story, considering I am not quite sure what all happens in this movie anyway.
Howard is Jewish and works and lives in a predominantly Jewish world. His Judaism is an essential part of his character, although he is not all that observant, except for when he goes to his family’s Passover seder. The Safdies comment on Jewish assimilation as well as on Jewish/Black relations, almost making a statement relating to whether or not Jews should be considered white, but backing away to focus on how Jews have adopted whiteness to exploit other, more marginalized people. This interplay between Howard’s culture and his interaction with the Black characters adds a sly social underpinning to the whole madcap affair and makes “Uncut Gems” one of the most interesting Jewish films to be released in America in some time.
The women in the film do a lot with little, particularly Julia Fox, who plays Howard’s mistress and partner in crime. She fills in what could have been a forgettable, or even offensive, stereotype with an inner life of her own. Idina Menzel, while very effective in a couple of scenes, is given even less to work with, and one cannot help but think that more time could have been spent developing the female characters so that it was not entirely up to the actresses to make them more than just “types.”
“Uncut Gems” is a highly enjoyable movie that might also wrack your nerves given the high pitch of all the scenes and the increasing anxiety developed through the mise en scene. Adam Sandler does some of his best work to date.