Each generation deserves a new contender for the least-appropriate holiday picture. Presto: “Uncut Gems,” opening Dec. 25, arrives just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, you name it — it won’t quite fit.
The latest nerve-shredder from Josh and Benny Safdie is worth seeing, even if it’s not their finest two hours. Adam Sandler’s excellent. Even his fans would agree those words don’t apply to much of what he does. Now and then, he wanders away from terrible comedies to work with some of our most vital filmmakers, here with the Safdies, running a clammy, high-velocity sprint through one man’s risky business.
We’re in the Diamond District of Manhattan. The year is 2012. Howard Ratner (Sandler), a compulsive gambler whose entire existence is a six-way parlay in one way or another, feels his luck is about to change. Inside the guts of a fish packed in ice, a precious, raw black opal embedded in rock is making its way to Howard. He hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the titular uncut stones.
But his debts and obligations make smooth sailing impossible. Howard’s brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark, and Howard owes him money. If they have to share the same Passover dinner table, it’s an inconvenience among many. Idina Menzel plays Dinah, Howard’s seething wife, threatening divorce; Julia Fox portrays Julia, Howard’s co-worker and his partner in bed, and in nerve. (Shrew or sex doll: The movie unfortunately settles for two hoary types of women.)
Former Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett plays himself, and he’s a natural on the screen. Garnett comes into Howard’s stall looking for jewelry. The opal, recently pulled from the fish, is beckoning. Garnett falls for it; this, he thinks, is the rock Destiny has tossed in his path.
The Safdies keep tightening the screws on Howard until the movie offers him, and its pursuit-and-evasion storyline, a fork in the road. One way leads to redemption and survival; the other leads to the big sleep. We sense cosmic retribution in “Uncut Gems.” The prologue, set in an Ethiopian mine, puts the inescapable image of blood diamonds in our heads. In an outlandish digital-effects passage, the camera plunges inside the opal, down to the molecular level, then we see light at the end of a tunnel. It turns out to be Howard’s colonoscopy, two years later.
Throughout “Uncut Gems,” Sandler works in deft counterpoint to the frenzy around him — frenzy he provokes with his gambling and all the rest. There’s little breathing room in the Safdies’ approach. Their previous features — “Daddy Longlegs” (2009), “Heaven Knows What” (2014) and “Good Time”(2017) — operate on a similar, careening wavelength.
The Safdies’ talents behind the camera have outrun their screenwriting skills. Few can match their ability (and none their visual style) in staging complex lines of action in long takes, often in disorienting close-up. The writing here feels a little stale; the script has been around for a decade, when the Safdies first approached Sandler about it.
For Sandler, the years have given him the confidence not to compete with the maelstrom of technique threatening to suffocate every scene. (The music goes a little far.) But there’s some grubby exhilaration in “Uncut Gems.” And for a lot of us, most days this month feel alarmingly like a Safdie brothers movie.
★★★ “Uncut Gems,” with Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel. Directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, from a screenplay by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. 135 minutes. Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. Multiple theaters.