Directed by: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Premise: Set in 2012, a New York City jeweler (Adam Sandler) prepares a rare black opal for auction while evading loan sharks, charming a professional basketball player (Kevin Garnett), and angling for a big score on a series of sports bets.
What Works: Filmmaking siblings Benny and Josh Safdie make stylized and high energy thrillers about characters in extreme situations such as 2017’s Good Time. The Safdie brothers’ newest film is Uncut Jems and although it is less dramatically stylized than Good Time it is no less intense. Uncut Jems is designed to put the audience through a stressful wringer and it does that through precise control of the filmmaking. The movie places the viewer inside the subcultures of sports betting and jewelry dealing without much exposition. It’s generally clear what’s going on but the filmmakers do not stop for explanations. They trust the audience is intelligent enough to make sense of what they’re shown and the embedded style gives the movie urgency as we rush to catch up. The dialogue exchanges are staged in a naturalistic way with the characters speaking over each other and the action is frequently shot in close ups or with part of the set framing the characters and crowding them together. This gives Uncut Jems a claustrophobic feel that is appropriate to the story. Throughout the film, Uncut Jems literalizes the gambler’s fallacy and the framing of the action gets tighter and tighter as the protagonist keeps leveraging himself. The lead role of Uncut Jems is played by Adam Sandler. Although his career is distinguished by underachievement, Sandler possess talent and charisma and he brings those qualities to bear on this role. The character’s constant schemes could make him unlikable or unsympathetic but the script gives the jeweler moments of humanity and Sandler makes us want to see this man succeed. Uncut Jems accomplishes that because it captures the thrill of the bet. Gambling is exciting because of its uncertainty; bettors put fortune in the hand of fate and people like Sandler’s character believe that the unpredictable forces of nature can be controlled or outsmarted. This story almost makes us believe in it as Sandler’s character does and Uncut Jems keeps us engaged to the very end by preying on our hope.
What Doesn’t: The casting of Adam Sandler is likely to throw viewers. People who don’t like Sandler’s comedy will be pleasantly surprised, so long as they can get past their preconceptions of who Sandler is and the kinds of movies he makes. But fans of Adam Sandler’s comedy—and there are many—will probably be hit sideways by Uncut Jems. This is about as far from The Waterboy and The Ridiculous 6 as is imaginable. That’s good because those movies are terrible. But the casting of Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems may collide with viewer expectations one way or another.
Bottom Line: Uncut Jems is an intense thriller that expertly uses filmmaking craft to create a whirlwind of tension. The movie is also a vivid character piece about the thrill of living on the edge.
Episode: #783 (January 5, 2020)