Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, a small-time jeweler with a gambling addiction, is the latest in a line of hapless hustlers pushed to extremes in an adrenalized cinematic realm that could only have been conceived by filmmaker brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. From the outset of Uncut Gems, Howard spins a dizzying number of plates to stay ahead of creditors, pawning jewelry loaned to him by customers to raise money he needs to pay off sharks, only to instead drop cash on the latest basketball odds. Howard is a man for whom the big score is always just on the horizon, and were he not barreling toward disaster, and without any brakes, you’d almost have to admire his endless optimism.
Howard’s precarious balancing act is maintained on sheer force of will, and even amid the typically antic pitch of the Safdies’ filmography, his single-mindedness is overwhelming. Much of Uncut Games consists of Howard attempting to dominate every conversation, fast-talking over everyone from clients to creditors to his own wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), whose clenched-jaw loathing of her asinine husband signals that their marriage is in its late stages. But Howard, like so many of the Safdies’ protagonists, makes the fatal error of believing himself to be the only true swindler in any given room, despite occupying an underworld populated entirely by hustlers. Howard never fools anyone; at best, he talks so rapidly and incessantly to his debtors that he momentarily dazes them long enough to momentarily evade them.
By the time we meet Howard, though, this fragile way of life is starting to crumble. The jeweler is so heavily in dept to Arno (Eric Bogosian), an in-law and loan shark whose hired muscle (Keith Williams Richards) threatens Howard with beatings, that he attempts a Hail Mary move to get out of debt by way of ordering a valuable opal from an Ethiopian gem mine in the hopes of auctioning it for a massive profit. But because he cannot help himself, Howard complicates things by letting Kevin Garnett borrow the opal after the Celtics center visits his shop with another hustler, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, radiating a shrewd, brooding variant of Howard’s more frantic scheming). It’s a potentially win-win situation, as Garnett needs a good-luck charm during the Eastern Conference finals and Howard hopes to bet on the Celtics winning, but things, of course, go awry after Garnett hoards the opal and backstabs Demany.
The stress of the situation wreaks havoc on Howard, and the man’s hopelessness brings out the best in Sandler. The actor’s gift as a comic has always lied in his volcanic rage relative to his characters’ inconsequentiality and powerlessness, and Howard is a fountain of impotent fury. His attempts to sound calm suggest a man trying hard not to scream, which he frequently does when trying to speak over the din of practically emasculating group arguments. Howard issues orders with a finality that would convey authority were he not ignored by literally everyone, and the more Howard cajoles and threatens the more pathetic he seems.
The film compounds Howard’s diminishing sense of strength with a punishing sound mix that elevates the overlapping dialogue into howls of white noise in which only fragments of people’s sentences can be gleaned at certain times. In their films, the Safdies always stress the omnipresence of street noise and the chaos of conversation between more than a handful of people, but Uncut Gems sees them pushing the decibel levels of their sound design to new and deafening heights. And that’s before you factor in Daniel Lopatin’s score, a shimmering, ringing chime of synthesizers that evokes light refracting off of precious stones. That quality, that suggestion of a gem’s glittering hardness, can also be found in Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which, with its metallic color timing and reflective sheens, is in stark contrast to the grimy, sweat-streaked naturalism of Sean Price Williams’s work for the Safdies.
As in Good Time, Uncut Gems finds the Safdies working in genre rooted in the grimy, character-oriented crime films of the ’70s. In Howard’s doomed figure is something of Ben Gazzara’s character from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a social climber who keeps slipping on the bottom rungs and whose individual tragedy illuminates the emptiness of the systems that define him. But where Cassavetes foregrounds his protagonist’s woes, the promises of the American work ethic that push him to the edge of cynical despair, the Safdies stress the irreconcilable contradictions of late capitalism. Throughout Uncut Gems, they illustrate how even a small business owner can be implicated in a global network of misery-making, one that connects the exploitation of African labor to the pressures of social status that compel athletes, rappers, and everyday social aspirants to want to own the products of that labor.
Furthermore, the filmmakers trace the alienation that comes of this globalized system on a micro scale by observing the ethnic tensions between and within communities that alienate Howard from his mostly African-American clientele and even members of his own Jewish family. The film’s climax inverts convention by showing the “hero” getting the villains exactly where he wants them, only to monologue and give away his advantage. Howard’s folly is a testament to how far removed he’s become from reality, as he’s unable to see how his elaborate bricolage of bets and schemes become the jaws of a closing trap.