In this calm period between exam seasons, sometimes we all just need a booster hit of crippling stress to get us by. In this regard, I can’t recommend the Safdie Brothers’ latest film Uncut Gems enough!
Currently, on a limited release in select cinemas and coming to Netflix on January 31st, the film stars Adam Sandler as a Jewish jeweler in New York who crosses just about every stereotypical box you could conceive from that description. While Sandler’s name (and front-and-centre appearance on the poster) has historically been a mark of a… niche brand of comedy, this is a relatively serious role for the actor and one that it truly seems he was born to play. This isn’t the first time Sandler has proven himself to punch well above his apparent acting weight, most notably his performance in Punch-Drunk Love was particularly brilliant. It seems that he exceeds in roles that call for a troubled mind and an explosive personality with a pinch of self-awareness, which describes his role as Howard the jeweler to a tee.
Howard, who is consistently bling-ed out with a giant, jewel-encrusted rings, earrings and the like, is also constantly swimming in debt, making foolish loans, and gambling with more money than he can afford. This leads to a headache-inducing web of debts that becomes increasingly impossible to untangle, and this is evident in the first scenes in which we see Howard. When he first enters his office, we see a slew of customers in loud and constant chatter, loan shark goons pressuring Howard, constant text messages and phone calls sending Howard’s phone into a frenzy – with all the noise and everyone talking over one another, it’s impossible to follow one chain of conversation fully. Mixed with the all-consuming glittering of every surface in the jewelry shop, this leads to a sensory overload within the first five minutes that efficiently demonstrates the chaos of Howard’s life.
This is how the film feels for the entirety of its runtime – an ever-increasing weight of stress and tangling debts that never loosens its grip. We see Howard loan a priceless gem to basketball player Kevin Garnett (starring as himself) that he is supposed to be submitting to an auction house, a ploy to pay off his looming debt while making a hefty sum on the side. The increasing impatience of the auction-house as they threaten to cancel his submission and the futile nature of Howard’s attempts to get back in contact with such a high-profile customer to get his gem back is just one of the threads we helplessly watch Howard tie around his own neck. This is not even to mention Howard’s personal problems such as his colonoscopy results and his marital issues, which are constantly on the back-burner throughout the film. It would be impossible to stand Howard’s foolish, greed-driven actions if not for the charms of Adam Sandler, who achieves an impressive mixture of sleaze, agreeability, and humanity to make the character relatable enough to root for, and make his short-sighted decisions all the more frustrating.
Sandler’s is not the only case of a performative hidden gem (pun intended) in the film, with Kevin Garnett’s surprisingly believable performance and Julia Fox’s breakthrough performance as Howard’s mistress Julia – both of which are debut performances. Overall, the film is a great watch if you’re ever feeling too relaxed – try to catch it in cinemas if you can, or just wait for it on Netflix where you can take advantage of the pause button to take your mind off it and do something less stressful for a while, like an essay or something.