After enjoying Good Time (2017) so much, I was excited to watch another Safdie brothers’ film. Then I watched The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Josh Safdie, 2008) and was exceptionally disappointed. With the success of Uncut Gems, Benny and Josh’s next collaboration after Good Time, I thought maybe there was hope. Reviews showed that people enjoyed the frantic and frenzied energy of Sandler’s performance and character, similar to the character of Connie (Robert Pattinson) in Good Time – a terrible person, a manipulator, always on the move and never stopping. Unfortunately, possibly due to the larger scale and cast of Uncut Gems, which even includes real-life celebrities Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd playing themselves, the loud frantic feeling falls and fails in the film. What worked in Good Time does not work here; an unfortunate realisation recognisable in viewing both films and comparing them.
Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a soon-to-be-divorcee jewellery store owner with a big gambling problem and huge $100,000 debt to pay to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). He’s not the best father to his kids that live with wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who has promised to divorce him after Passover, all the whilst Sandler lives with his girlfriend (Julia De Fiore), a younger employee from his store. After purchasing a large uncut black opal from Africa which he believes he can sell for more than enough to pay off his debt, Kevin Garnett becomes interested in the gem stone. Ratner must balance his brother-in-laws two brutish bodyguards (plus Arno himself), his party girlfriend and wife (who hates him), interest in the stone and money in the meantime to gamble on Garnett’s basketball games (a gamble upon a gamble upon a gamble).
The film is a loud, lengthy, labourious tale of Howard placing bets and promising promises and getting angry and more in debt and skiving off other people when he feels at a loss; he’s not a great person, but perhaps due to our conditioned response to Sandler’s underdog characters from comedy dramas, we do feel a bit of sympathy for him (but only a little bit). Overall, every character is pretty awful. Yes, we are being shown the dirty underbelly of loan sharks and gambling and bets and money, but to make every character that one-note makes the film fall flat. There’s nowhere for them to go, no up or down – this is made especially true by the fact the tone of the film is set at 100% right from the get-go. Sandler’s character is always at 100%, the people around him are always in go-go-go-mode, and the swapping and exchanging of money and discussion of deals is shown quickly and spoke about rapidly. If you start at 100% and stay at 100%, there’s no room for growth. You are introduced to a character and they stay as that first impression; it’s like the Safdie brothers take you for a ride in a fast car, but staying at 100 miles per hour means you get used to the high speed and after a while, it doesn’t feel so fast anymore.
The frantic whirlwind character of Connie in Good Time is understood and believed as the film techniques reflect that. The camera gives us insight into his hurried nature, which sucks us in and pulls us along. In Uncut Gems, the cinematography is essentially non-existent. It’s obvious the Safdie brothers know how to play with framing and light to produce the strained claustrophobia of Connies’s brain and environment, so why is that discarded in their next film? Instead they’ve produced a very basic image, relying on the (admittedly great) musical score by Daniel Lopatin, the same composer they used for Good Time. However, when the characters are dealing with the fast exchanging of ideas and money and gems and brutality, it needs to be shown through the actions of the camera, not just the actions of the character, otherwise you lose a whole layer of communication.
There were no nuances to the characters, nowhere for them to go; there doesn’t need to be a redemption arc for a terrible character, or even a justified punishment, but there needs to be more than a two-dimensional person that just exists in the world on-screen. Adam Sandler, however, does deserve credit for his performance. He slipped so naturally into this role it was almost impossible to compare him to the comedy characters I’ve seen him in – if only the characters had been written better.