Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 26, 2019 7:56 pm 
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Stress addiction

This was the second half of my Christmas Day double feature, after Greta Gerwig's Little Women. The first film and story are a warm bath of family unity and amorous conflict in period costume. Gerwig has, admittedly, upped the anxiety level of the perennial Luisa May Alcott tale somehow by increasing the speed and scrambling the chronology of the scenes. Well, the Safdies' film takes you to a chilly present day world of non-stop anxiety. But its chronology, running non-stop along the period of about a week, is pretty clear. Every minute Howard, its protagonist possessed with such remarkable conviction by Adam Sandler (in what they're understandably calling the role of a lifetime) is in a bad place. But unlike Greta Gerwig's movie, this is one in which every moment rushes directly, nonstop, onto the next one. The rhythm feels heavily improvised, almost like one of John Cassavetes' movies. You can't play like this unless you're in the zone. "If Jean Vigo, John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin had a deformed child, we would be their best friend," the brothers told Interview magazine after their first film came out in 2009.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a gem dealer in Manhattan’s diamond district. This is a place where there's liquid cash, and precious objects with cash value. Howard slavers over his life the danger of long-odds bets he is constantly phoning in as he struggles to pay down his existing gambling debts. In short, he is a full-on gambling addict, as well as an adrenaline junkie and a compulsive liar and fantasist, all of which characteristics feed on each other and cause the resultant throbbing mess of danger, risk, confusion, and insanity to metastasize and grow. At the heart of Howard is gem madness, the age-old "dragon sickness," which makes a man ready to sell all for the gleam of a magical jewel. Hence the metaphorical opening where a deep look at an Ethiopian mine of black opals overlaps a surgeon's investigation of Howie's colon. Spoiler alert: his innards aren't where Howie's sick.

A dozen things are going on at once but always over the multitasking there is a single object, to keep danger at bay, the stakes high, and the armed mafia goon creditors and suspicious individuals, including his family and his wife, occupied. Howard is always looking for the bigger bet leading to the gonzo, unheard of win that will pay off all the debts.

The basic plot kicks off immediately in Howard's cramped, gleaming bright appointment-only diamond district shop with its locked glass cases and loud electronic security door. There is a portly technician in the back working quietly on gems and jewels. People seem to scurry about, including Julia (Julia Fox), a very pretty young woman who is Howard's mistress kept in an apartment he owns in town. His family lives in a posh house in Long Island. Notably on hand is Lakeith Stanfeld (of the great Sorry to Bother You) as Demany, a sort of liaison for Howard, because most of his customers are newly rich and black. Howie is crazy about pro basketball, and Demany has brought in Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself) . Howie shows Garnett a large stone full of uncut opals that has just come to him, shipped concealed in a frozen fish. He gets Garnett excited about its mystic powers (dragon sickness glimmering in the tall athlete too), but won't sell it to him because he says it's scheduled to go on auction. He thinks it worth at least a million dollars.

Things get messier from here. Howard gives Garnett the opal stone on loan to use as a good luck charm for that night's big coming game, taking in exchange a valuable ring. As soon as Garnett's gone, he pawns the ring to raise gambling cash to bet on the game. And so on and on and on, non-stop. The watching of this film itself is addictive. You know you want to stop, but you can't. Or mostly you can't: I wondered if the crowd that filled the auditorium midday on Christmas knew what they were in for, but nobody left - except the three next to me.

The heady mix is definitely fueled by Adam Sandler's intense, believable performance, but it's very much a consistent mix. Its deep underpinning is the careful plotting of the minute-to-minute action by Benny Safdie and the brothers' regular writing collaborator, Ronnald Bronstein. The score by Daniel Lopatin is a masterpiece of pleasing torture. The surface is maintained by DP Darius Khondji’s restless, jittery cinematography (aided by many cameramen) and Benny and Ronald's precise editing. This is not the kind of movie where you'll take a restroom break, or even look at your watch. This seems not the work of experienced filmmakers, who know to provide breathing spaces in their action to provide a sense of structure and mimic the rhythms of life. But I'll give the Safdies a pass this time (as I could not for their unappealing, tiresome 2017 film Good Time) because this is a brilliant mix that works as both suspense actioner and character study.

The nonstop action does change in one respect because it crescendos, moving to an ever-increasingly more dangerous final chapter with a doomsday feel hovering over it like a spell.

I realized that the Safdie brothers have done nothing in their movies but follow intense, compulsive, at risk individuals, the last being Robert Pattinson's rushed goofy failed robber with his mentally challenged brother sidekick, but the origin being the irresponsible but loving father of their debut picture, Daddy Longlegs. And this means that it all goes back to their own father. The inspiration comes from close to home. And that's why it's so awful but also so intimate.

This is a movie more to be admired than to be enjoyed, but in its way it is a rich and beautiful thing, and in his strange sickness, his dream of making it all work, somehow Howie is lovable, a Willy Loman of fantasy greed and a tragic figure.

Uncut Gems, 135 mins., had its New York premiere Dec. 7, 2019. However, on Oct. 3 it had a secret screening premiere as part of the New York Film Festival. It opened in US theaters on Christmas Day. Metascore was (Dec. 2019) 89%; now (May 2021) 91%.

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