It is an odd, daring experiment to build a film around a protagonist who unfailingly does the wrong thing. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry store proprietor whose skill at garish hucksterism is matched only by his compulsion to gamble away every modest stack of riches that comes him way, certain that windfalls are out there for the taking. As the film begins, Howard is beset by problems, the most menacing of which arrives in the form of hired goons insisting debts are coming due. But Howard also has a rock the size of a generous hunk of bread. Imported from Ethiopia, it contains black opals, and Howard is certain the stone will deliver him a payday of over a million dollars.
The wise course of action is to sit tight and see how the potentially life-changing situation plays out. That doesn’t work for Howard. He’s a hustler with no off switch, and the film revolves around his mounting desperation as he buckles himself into situational straitjackets beyond his meager escape artist capabilities to extricate himself from. Sibling directors Benny and Josh Safdie craft the film with a clear intent to transfer the tension Howard feels to the audience, pressing in tightly on Howard’s anguished face and thumping the soundtrack to almost unbearable levels. It’s bravura filmmaking, so relentlessly pushy that it becomes exhausting in the wrong ways. Although the character sketch is rendered with narrative consistency, the trials of Howard come across as screenwriting machinations rather than a wholly believable progression of events. There’s no suspense in waiting for the other shoe to fall when there’s a relentless downpour of footwear.
The most notable choice in the film is the casting of Sandler, making one of his occasional attempts at more substantive fare than his usual inane comedies built on obnoxious clamor and cartoon logic. As was the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released almost twenty years ago, the new film provides the strange sensation of seeing Sandler basically play his signature onscreen persona in a serious way. Howard is a troublesome man-child with no regulator on his temper who also fumbles into moments of wounded vulnerability, all of which somehow makes him appealing to attractive women. With no finessing, that same description could be applied to any number of roles churned out under Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions banner. Sandler is suitable, but also can’t find a way to push deeper into the role. As a result, the baggage he brings makes Uncut Gems feel too much like a version of his typical movie where the slapstick happens to leaves a mark.