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Harlan Jacobson Reviews 'Uncut Gems'

The Safdie Bros. last film, Good Time, written with writing partner Ron Bronstein, was a furious chase film with Robert Pattinson on a mad, upside down dash through criminal Queens, like its forebear, The French Connection. It was a favorite at Cannes 2018 and an arthouse hit in the US. No more Mr. Nice Guys with Uncut Gems, with nice-guy specialist and generational touchstone, Adam Sandler, in a serious turn as a crazy Jewish upstairs jeweler on 47th Street in the Diamond district at the center of the Safdie’s New York, which you won’t see on any tour bus.

The Safdies take the pulse of NY borough Jews, post-Soviet Jews, not the Fiddler on the Roof kind, nor the ridiculous warm and funny Mrs. Maisel/Joan Rivers comedian kind, nor the secular ACLU Jews in good wool lawsuits to protect our rights kind, nor the philanthropy Jews of Fifth Avenue. These are crazy-Stan Jews, east of Baku in Azerbaijan into the Stan countries, formerly Soviet republics, as far east as Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent in Uzbekistan who made it out of the Soviet Union to the US in the 1980s exodus. Now they live loud—very loud--as if no one has ever just said something when a scream would do. And they live large. Real estate, cars, bling. Repeat.

How Howard Ratner’s people got here, we don’t know. Played by Sandler, in a turn that deserves an Oscar nomination, Howard has a 47th St. gem shop, a hot girlfriend, Julia, played by Julia Fox—nu, what else, Fox?--working the counter and whom he keeps in an Ikea-decorated apartment, a wife, Dinah, whom he’s divorcing played by Idina Menzel, who not just picks Sandler’s pocket but strips it clean for best acting honors here, with whom he’s had kids who look like voracious squirrels. There’s his aging father-in-law, Gooey, Judd Hirsch, and Eric Bogosian, now surprisingly ready for Medicare, as his shtarker brother-in-law, Arno, to whom he owes a small fortune that Arno means to collect using two of the meanest enforcers on earth, whom the Safdies must’ve found burying a victim in Brighton Beach. I mean take a look at this guy Keith Williams Richards, and his sidekick Tommy Kominick. They’re not actors, never acted before, they’re hounds from hell. Really. And Howard butts head with a rapper who calls himself The Weekend, making Howard the only 50-something Uzbekistani-American Jew inside a club full of 20-somethings he’s too old for. 

Uncut Gems is about market Jews who live by risk, who have always lived by risk, first in the Stan-countries, now in their American iteration a generational bump down on 47th St. When we meet him, Howard is working about six different angles, including a mixed-up crazy deal involving a hot rock he wants to auction at a Sotheby’s-like house and an insane bet of the money the enforcers are waiting for in the lobby, as Howard puts it all down on former Boston Celtics power forward, Kevin Garnett, in the 6th game of the 2012 eastern conference finals with the Philadelphia 76ers. Garnett, brought to the shop by his handler, rising young actor Lakeith Stanfield, to buy some bling, sees the rock and walks out with it, offering his 2008 NBA Finals championship ring as collateral. Which Howard hocks (so to speak) immediately to keep another money finagle going. Howard’s prize gem cutter, sick of the chaos, has just threatened to quit – to which Howard, staring glassy-eyed at the arrival of the rock, the size of a brick, that he’s had smuggled out of a mine during a calamity in Ethiopia and delivered inside a fish to 47th Street — can only look up uncomprehendingly and drool, “I think I’m gonna ….” And here you would insert a word for sexual fulfillment. 

Uncut Gems is bright and shiny and kinetic like young filmmakers make — think Scorsese’s Mean Streets or a decade later his Raging Bull, and Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogsand Pulp Fiction. No CGI aging anyone down here in the cast, a la the dinosaur Irishman; the only aging going on here is you, in your seat, as the film takes three years off your life in stress. 

I’ll be back just after New Years with thoughts about the best films of the year. Uncut Gems is not the stately The Two Popes with the two Holinesses Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Benedict and Francis, the deep emotional impossibility of Clemency with Alfre Woodard, who more than merits a Best Actress nomination for her work as a warden who has worked her way to the top only to face her legacy, and the merry Christmas period piece, Little Women, with another winning performance by Saiorse Ronan. All are absolutely worth your time and love. 

After Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers may become better filmmakers—more mature, tidier, and so on. But they may never achieve this again--a perfect cut.  

I rarely get to say that. 

Happy Holidays to you and yours.


Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.