Howie Ratner perilously juggled his gems dealing business with his addiction to high-stakes gambling, for which he has incurred a huge debts for various creditors. It reached a point when he would take out a loan to place a bet usually on the outcome of NBA basketball games, and used his winnings to pay off another debt in a vicious circle.
One day, he was able to get his hand on a piece of rock from Ethiopia which contained a huge lode of opal, which he had committed for a gems auction. When basketball superstar Kevin Garnett desperately wanted to own the opal for its perceived energy, Ratner thought this was his way out of his most major debts from ruthless loan sharks.
I first heard about "Uncut Gems" when its lead actor Adam Sandler won the best actor award from the National Board of Review early last month. That was really big surprising news for me. Not only because Sandler is not exactly noted for his dramatic acting chops, but even his comedy acting had taken quite a bad rap in recent years. Now here, he actually won best actor in a year dominated by Joaquin Phoenix's "Joker" and that is truly incredible. (I felt bad that Sandler was snubbed for an Oscar nomination for this performance as this would probably be his closest brush with it.)
Sandler's Howie was not a likable guy. He was loud and sleazy in speech and fashion. He split his time with his legal wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and his employee girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox). He was street-smart to a fault, always trying to sweet talk his way out of the tight fixes he found himself caught in because of his risky activities.
As the film went along, things do get out of hand, and that reflected on Sandler's increasingly panicked vocal inflections and erratic behavior. Sandler still had some of his known joker in Howie, but the stress here was definitely real and palpable.
Aside from the inherent suspense of Howie's dangerously chaotic obsessions, director/co-writer brothers Josh and Benny Safdie also gave this project a lot of esoteric touches. The opening shot was that of an extreme closeup of the patterns within a gemstone which segued to an endoscopic view of a colon, which went around vice versa at the end.
Another innovative feature was its most unusual musical soundtrack, which used psychedelic tunes seemingly totally unconnected to the action onscreen. It was distractingly bizarre at first, but later that music becomes a mesmerizing aspect.
Noisy, shouty and profane, this is not for everybody. However, I was betting this could have been an Oscar nominee for best picture, but too bad it did not make the final list.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."