The other night I went to see Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers film. Though I'd wanted to see it since viewing the trailer months ago, I was wondering going in how much, or if, I would like it. It’s not that I disliked their previous film, Good Time, but I wasn't as crazy about it as a number of people I know. I liked its energy, the soundtrack, and the feeling I had of being on a strange odyssey, yet I found myself irritated by its use of an overused trope -- one semi-competent criminal getting into deeper and deeper shit in order to help a person he cares for, in this case his brother, who is developmentally disabled. Robert Pattinson gives a memorable performance, but I found myself watching his character's frantic movements and frequently dumb choices with an emotional distance, though the very foolhardiness of his choices is something that gives the film verisimilitude. Most criminals in real life are more like Pattinson's character - not geniuses by a longshot - than they are models of planning and intelligence. The Safdies do present him without judgment or moralizing, and that is something I appreciate: don't tell me what to think about a character, as so many movies and TV series do; don't try to nudge me in a certain direction regarding a character; just give me the characters' behavior, and let me decide what to think about them.
Well, Uncut Gems does this completely, giving us Adam Sandler's gambling-addicted, New York City diamond dealer Howard Ratner along with an assortment of hectic, striving characters, and about not one of them do the Safdies pass judgment. Nor do they push you to think a certain way about any of their characters. In a way that's reminiscent of Martin Scorsese, they give you complicated people, warts and all, and let you deal with them as people. You get behavior and that's it, contradictory, unpredictable, at times self-defeating, and you read that behavior according to your own lights. It's something I thought clicked to near perfection in Uncut Gems.
Have I said how much more I liked this film than Good Time? It's a quantum leap forward, an immersive experience that had me hooked and on edge for nearly the entire movie. As a New Yorker, and I mean this in a good way, the film is like a stressful day in the city when things are not going well. Maybe I'm so used to this as a lifelong New Yorker, I felt at home with it? I don't know. But this is a film with a headlong intensity few films have, and while it's a focused character study, it also manages to be remarkably messy. Or more accurately, the Safdies are able to do something rare: create the illusion of lifelike messiness in a tale that's actually simple and tight. It's hard in a drama to create mess and continual surprise and keep incidents tinkering on the edge of chaos without falling prey to the fallacy of imitative form - the story itself becoming unhinged and chaotic - but they succeed with that difficult balance here.
What else? It's always fascinating to see a comedian do a straight role, and you get a particular jolt when it works. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner, Lily Tomlin in Nashville. How can you beat Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford in Scorsese's The King of Comedy? As Scorsese said back when he made the film, he saw something dark in Lewis underneath all those slapstick roles, and he wanted to tap into that for The King of Comedy. And did he ever! I never was a Lewis fan as far as his comedy goes, but he gives a great performance as the talk show host kidnapped by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard.
In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler matches Lewis and then some, showing total commitment to the role. I've read comments from some people that they couldn't stand his character, Howard Ratner, because he's so stupid or because he's not likable, but I didn't see him that way at all. He makes too many bad choices to count, true, and he's not precisely what I'd call an ideal husband, yes, but somehow, and much of this is due to Sandler's performance, I was continually rooting for him. I was rooting for him even though you know that someone with this substantial a gambling addiction is never going to "win" in the end. And the Safdies do something unusual with him. They give you a person it's clear they like, with all his excesses and energy and appetite, but at the same time, they don't cut him any slack. When his wife (Idina Menzel) tells him, as he's begging for her to give him another shot in their marriage, that he's the most annoying person she's ever met and has the most stupid face she's ever seen and that she doesn't even want to touch him again, I laughed because that's exactly what her character would and should say to him considering how he is and everything he's done. The Safdies like Howard Ratner but don't let him off the hook for anything at any time. They give him to us with what you might call unsentimental love.
Uncut Gems - a kinetic experience, a nerve jangler, funny, unruly, ridiculous, exhausting, and a New York movie par excellence. I'm sure I'll be rewatching it over the years.