Uncut Gems ★★½

Remember growing up, the kid in the class who was the loudest, the one that would remind you that he was listening to “Loft Music” before House of Balloons even dropped, the one that liked Adam Sandler ironically, the one that came into class with the Air Jordans XX2s that their dad bought them but boasted how “he stole them from the back of a truck”?

Uncut Gems is kind of like that kid. Its relentlessness makes sure you know just how cool, funny and badass it is. There are no moments of quiet contemplation because if there were you might stop to think about just how dumb everything is. Instead, Gems plays like a “fastest Badminton rally” youtube video with sneaker squeaking and everything. The Safdie’s aggressive style has become their trademark. It’s a generational grab-bag style of direction, one that throws out things that once mattered like nuance of performance, framing, thematic quality and holds onto the other stuff like overlapping dialogue, treaties on greed and Adam Sandler.

They describe their film in interview after interview as Goodfellas for this generation, which despite its arrogance, could be the most incorrect statement of the decade. Schoonmaker once recalled how film students came up to her and asked why Scorsese didn’t cut every film like the climax of Goodfellas to which she replied, the story doesn’t call for that. It has an arc, it builds up to that tension so that you can feel it whole-heartedly. The Safdies don’t build up to anything, its pace exceeds itself and renders everything numbing. Other viewers relish in this rush of kinetic anxiety and confuse it for good filmmaking. Though sensorial extremity is a skill, it is not a quotient for the whole sum. Rather, it attempts to deafen your thoughts of discernment.

And if it’s bad - well, it’s ironic. Yes, the Safdies have kind of bulletproofed their approach, a trend I’ve noticed amongst some of the new generation of filmmakers. An approach that both admonishes sincerity and lives in the safe confines of ironic badness with heightened aestheticism. You see, when Garnett is shown the Furby necklace, we’re supposed to laugh at its ironic hideousness, but also perhaps laugh so that people know we’re in on the joke too. Wearing it, thus, becomes a badge of ironic honour. The worst kind.

The film opens with Howard’s colonoscopy. We zoom in on the Oplaine crystal from Ethiopia only to come out of the ass of Howard. The brief bloody injury that’s inflicted from it is classic exploitation Safdies. The suffering of the African person is handled with as much distance and lack of grace as it was in Good Time when an Ethiopian security guard suffers a forced drugging. The intro in Gems is a lazy and redundant scene that attempts to convince the viewer that the narrative has some kind of social conscience. Even more lazily spelled out by KG when he confronts Howard’s exploitation in the third act. Or worse, the tragedy leading up has cast some ancient, ethnic curse upon the Opal. I think either reading is equally troubling.

But the Safdies don’t care about being troubling. Because it’s cool, remember? They cast actual addicts and convicts because they’re real! In Gems they cast the charming KG and the Weeknd as themselves. This is where the venture into reality stops though.

The two directors are obsessed with neo-realism (as stated in interviews) and everything about their characters seem real. And yet it’s all a paper tiger. Dig a bit under the characters and they’re all one dimensional. KG as an athlete obsessed by Jewelry/riches, the Weeknd with drugs/sex, Lakeith Stanfield as the uncooked muscle for KG, Adam Sandler as the pathetic dealer, Julie Fox as the whore/madonna, Judd Hirsch as the father with the heart of gold. There’s nothing particularly real about anything or anyone and the former examples lend themselves to racist tropes. But again - the ironclad defense with this particular kind of creation is “well, it’s not supposed to be real. It’s an ironic b-movie thriller. See the John Carpenter titles tell you so.” Great. But then I’m left feeling stalemated. I don’t ever get the intelligence of a Carpenter thriller, nor the emotion of a personal drama.

So what do you get? Well take away the novelty of KG, the Weeknd, and Adam Sandler as the cast and you’re left with 130 minutes of wall-to-wall music, overlapping dialogue and a portrait of a pathological liar and gambler. You want to see Howard succeed but none of it makes sense. During the first half, you want to make sure Howard gets his Gem back from the African-Americans who stole it...think about how that sounds. The other half, you wanna see him win because he's Adam Sandler. And for the record, when don't you want to see a gambler win? We’ve seen this film, a million billion times.

And as far as gambling goes, it's weak sauce. Listen, I love gambling. So this is a little aside but sports gamblers know the deal. He makes his first bet through a bookie - who apparently can cancel bets by proxy? (I’ve never heard of this happening. Even if you owe money to someone, that owed person could never cancel your wager. It would mean lost business for the bookie.) But then bets with a casino? What? Everyone knows you shouldn’t wager through casinos because there’s records and you end up losing net 30 in the U.S. on any winnings. So *Spoiler* he decides to fly Julie out to Connecticut to the Mohagen Sun Casino. Again, gamblers you know the deal….Anytime before 2018 you couldn’t walk into any casino outside of Nevada to place a sports bet. Are you kidding me? And Connecticut of all places?! They just legalized sportsbooks in CT maybe as of last year. This is set in 2012 right? OK, so you lost me there. But on top of that, you fly to CT instead of NY? I thought at first it was a tax thing, maybe you don’t pay as much off the top in CT, but no it’s all the same. Makes no sense. I think they chose that specific casino because they just literally implemented a sportsbook there and I’m almost 100 percent certain they got funding from that Casino. Because what better advertisement exists than the woman-as-desired-object walking out of your casino with a million dollars? Poor taste.

So it doesn’t get into the psychology of a gambler whatsoever. Because as anyone knows, a gambler wants to protect their bets like crazy. They would never place a parlay with a bookie that “cancels bets”, let alone a casino that doesn’t take them. But it’s a moral tale about the corruption of greed, right? I think?...I don’t know. Again, we can chalk this up to none of this is real man. Get it? It’s all a fever dream/nightmare with a new age soundtrack to make it hyper-surreal?

This is a moral aside, but I kinda take issue with the way this treats gambling. You get the rush of betting in the first half, but the only valley of the gambler that's explored is when he doesn’t lock in his wager. This is not under any circumstances the low of any pathological gambler. The rest of the film he’s just jacked to get his wager in for the finals. You never, ever feel the downtrodden loss of gambling. It tries to stilt your expectations but effectively omits the Big Lose, the one where your wife leaves you, you take the second mortgage out on the house, you kidnap your kid’s best friend for ransom money. Instead it deals with the cartoon-ish slapstick thugs that are chasing Howard down for owed money. Nothing could be further removed from the experience of a real gambling addict. An addict wagers on how many bids there’ll be at the auction of his Opal or on how long the standing ovation is at his kid’s play. And when they don't have money, they don't get comically de-robed or pushed into public fountains. They make them do heinous, heinous things. It's a slap in the face of gambling addicts. This is more a casual gambler who’s addicted to...ancient Ethiopian uncut Opal?

What you’re left with is a film with zero reality, zero depth, zero soul. But big stars and big style. Fitting then that it will be coveted among cinephiles the way KG and Adam Sandler covet the uncut Opal. It’s an unfortunate metaphor. But perhaps more fitting is this unknowing metaphor: from a distance, Gems looks precious and valuable but the further you dive in, the further up the asses of the Safdies you truly get.

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