Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, 2019) – All Foreign Rights – Thriller
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a small-time New York City jeweler and a compulsive gambler who dreams of striking it big but is also saddled with massive gambling debts. He sees his latest opportunity to score big in the form of a rock he bought from Ethiopia which contains several uncut opals. When the rock arrives at his office, he shows it off to NBA star Kevin Garnett who is in the middle of a playoff run (the film is set in 2012). Garnett is entranced by the rock and asks to borrow it from Ratner, setting a chain of events in motion that will see Ratner attempt to parlay his insider knowledge of Garnett’s inspiration into a winning bet that will help him pay off the mobsters he owes, while also allowing him to leave his wife (Idina Menzel) and move in with his mistress Julia (Julia Fox). What follows is an incredibly frantic several days in which Howard attempts to get everything to line up in his favor against overwhelmingly long odds.
By the time it arrived on international Netflix in late January of 2020, Uncut Gems had already made a name for itself on the festival circuit and after a very successful run in theaters in the US. My own viewing and review confirmed for me much of what I had already hear: the film is indeed a masterpiece of suspense and tension and it is also by some distance the best film performance of Adam Sandler’s career.
Some were surprised by this latter point, given Sandler’s long career doing moronic comedies, but I personally was not. This is largely because I feel like his revelatory performance came in another Netflix movie, Noah Baumbach’s excellent The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). But Howard Ratner represents a leap to a whole other level for Sandler, simply one of the most consistently beguiling and well-drawn antiheroes in recent cinema history. Howard is by turns funny, charming, frustrating, sad and odious throughout the film, but you can never take your eyes off him and many will find him to be a character that sticks with you for a long time after the film is over. There are many great moments in this performance, including a self-pitying meltdown that has become a meme (“I’m so fucked up…”, etc.), but my personal favorite is from very late in the film when it looks like Howard has finally extricated himself from his debts only for the urge to gamble one more time to overcome him. This is a very complex moment in which I felt myself as a spectator pulled into Howard’s insane reasoning and started cheering for him. Bravura work all around from Sandler and the Safdie brothers, the film’s writer-directors.
As for that other aspect of the film, its nonstop tension, this is also definitely true. At no point in the film do you, or Howard, feel completely relaxed and instead there is constantly some source of annoyance, worry or hostility. This is really a masterly tonal feat from the Safdies, achieved through a screenplay that is chaotic and cacophonous, but also constantly building and releasing tension. This surely made the film feel very unpleasant for some – there is simply no moment of respite or relaxation for the characters or the audience – but this was also by design and as such, extremely effective. It is also a considerable step up in quality from the last Safdie brothers film, Good Time. That film was also very frantic and bleak, but doesn’t have the sustained tension of this film nor its greatly conflicted and sympathetic hero.
In any case, this relentless cycle of building and releasing tension results in many memorable moments, many of which leave you laughing as well as genuinely worried and anxious. My own personal favorite in this regard involves an early scene in which the buzzer in Howard’s store malfunctions, leading to a mad scramble to get the door open that is both very relatable and very exaggerated to great effect. Another great moment involves Howard attending his daughter’s school play and stepping outside for a moment. Both scenes simply have to be seen to be believed.
Besides these elements of the film, it has a lot of other things to like as well: great character acting from Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel, breakout performances from Julia Fox and Kevin Garnett and a hilarious cameo from The Weeknd, and more and more.
Put simply, Uncut Gems is a genuinely masterly piece of cinema, one of the best films of 2019, on Netflix or not. The company co-produced the film with US indie distributor A24 and released it internationally in 2020, meaning it didn’t make my end of year list for Netflix films. It is hard to imagine that it won’t top this year’s list, however. Netflix has done this type of co-producing before with many Spanish films for example, but also a couple from the US majors, including Shaft, Isn’t it Romantic and Annihilation, though it only acquired the final film after it was complete.
Adam Sandler is one of Netflix’s core talents, having been the first major Hollywood star/producer to sign an overall deal with the company in 2015. This deal and its subsequent extensions have produced films including The Ridiculous Six, The Do-Over and Murder Mystery among others. Netflix has claimed that Murder Mystery is the second most popular original film in the company’s history. Sandler’s production company Happy Madison has also produced two films that don’t star Sandler for Netflix, Father of the Year and The Wrong Missy, both of which were star vehicles for David Spade.
Besides his work under long term deals for Netflix, Sandler also starred in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) which was acquired by the company as a Netflix original film.
Lakeith Stanfield has starred in a total of six films that are distributed as Netflix original films, including Come Sunday, Death Note and Someone Great. He also appears in the Netflix series BoJack Horseman.
Judd Hirsch also appears in The Meyerowitz Stories as well as the Netflix series Big Mouth.
Eric Bogosian also appears in the Netflix series The Get Down.
Besides Uncut Gems, writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie also licensed their film Good Time to Netflix. Even though the film is not labeled as an original film, it is available just about everywhere on Netflix.
Producers Scott Rudin and Eli Bush have produced numerous films that have ended up being Netflix original movies, including The Meyerowitz Stories, Annihilation, Game Over, Man!and others.
Notable Corporate Alliance
A24 co-produced the film and distributed it in the US. As they are the leading independent distributors in the US these days, this alone makes the film an interesting case study in collaboration between Netflix and theatrical distributors. Beyond that link, the two companies also collaborated on the special John Mulvaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. Given the combination of Scott Rudin’s fondness for working with both A24 and Netflix, and the success of this particular project, do not be surprised if you see more films being made and distributed like this one.
The film was a (relative) box office hit for A24 in the US, grossing over $48 million, a record for the distributor. The film was also a critical hit and many hoped it would end up in the Oscar conversation. That didn’t happen, but this snub can’t overshadow the film’s obvious quality or the critical esteem in which it is held.