If you’re from some normal place, such as Sarasota, Fla., or Sacramento, Calif., or Dallas, I probably can’t explain the perverse pride we New Yorkers take in tales of filthy people doing horrible things in our wicked little metropolis. “I love this dirty town!” exclaims the sinister gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, pausing to enjoy a brawl on West 52nd Street in Sweet Smell of Success. New York must be the only city on earth where it’s common to hear people gripe that things are too sanitized, too safe. “Ah, remember when 42nd Street was a string of sleaze emporia and human-trafficking markets,” people say, nostalgia glimmering in their eyes. “Now there’s a—” (shudder) “Disney theater there.” (Expression of deep sorrow.)
Good news, friends. There’s a new offering in this critical micro-genre, the Scumbags of New York flick. Adam Sandler plays a lying degenerate gambler in Uncut Gems, which in its sordid candor turns out to be one of the grabbiest films of the year. The New York writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie — following their labyrinthine bank-robbery-gone-wrong odyssey Good Time two years ago, which was a better film — have crafted another crazed, flavorful, cinematic slug of hooch. At the end of the movie, I felt a slight hangover rather than satisfaction — a dazed sense of, “Wow, what was the point of all that?” Still, I enjoyed the binge.
If Good Time, which you can view on Amazon Prime, had something of the feel of Dog Day Afternoon, Uncut Gems made me think of Bad Lieutenant, the pugnacious 1992 Abel Ferrara film about a not-nice police officer, memorably played by Harvey Keitel, and his attempts to survive his gambling addiction during a New York Mets playoff run. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler is the antihero, one of the many Jewish retailers on West 47th Street in midtown Manhattan (a three-iron from National Review’s offices) buying and selling precious stones in tightly secured offices. Sandler’s Howard Ratner is cheating on his wife (an amusing Idina Menzel) with his shopgirl (Julia Fox, who is even better than Menzel) while fending off loan sharks and taking delivery of a hunk of precious stones from Africa that he hopes to auction off for a huge payday. Also, Passover is coming up, and there’s a kids’ play he can’t get out of; Howard is like a Jewish Henry Hill during the climax of Goodfellas.
One of Howard’s employees (Lakeith Stanfield) has the peculiar job of roping in athletes and hip-hoppers to come look at Howard’s wares, and one such whale is Kevin Garnett, the NBA star who (at the time the movie is set, a few years back) is trying to win playoff games for the Boston Celtics. Thanks to Howard’s mystical mumbo-jumbo about the power of precious stones, Garnett comes to think of the uncut gems as his good-luck charm. Bets are placed, an NBA championship ring is pawned, the gems go missing, the loan sharks smell blood in the Diamond District. Things are looking not so good for poor Howard. Then they get worse. It’s all dangerous and funny in an ink-black way.
I’m not one of those who disdain Adam Sandler’s dramatic work. He’s okay. I thought he was well suited for Reign Over Me, for instance, in which his character grappled with post-9/11 trauma, and he was ideal as the self-hating comic in Funny People. Nevertheless, he is a bit limited in his range, and Uncut Gems would have been a better movie with a more accomplished actor in the lead role. Sandler does pull off the central job here, which is to make us hope that this guy, despite all of his shameless dishonesty and breathtakingly bad choices, somehow navigates through the environment he’s built around himself — an urban version of Indiana Jones’s cave, with his every movie triggering a new booby trap. Sandler’s limitation as an actor is in his voice: it’s a clown voice, and he can never quite bring it to heel. Especially when he’s excited, that curious high pitch tends to drain the drama out of the moment, to take the edge off the noir by reminding us of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. With an actor the caliber of Robert Pattinson, who crushed it as a resourceful scammer walking a high wire all over Queens in Good Time, Uncut Gems would have been even more gripping.
Still, as it is there’s plenty of robust New York fun here, and by “fun” I mean getting dangled upside down outside a window or stuffed naked into a trunk. Disney may rule 42nd Street, but it’s reassuring to think of how many lowlifes, loan sharks, and double-dealers might still be playing the angles out there, right outside my window. I would prefer not to encounter such individuals in reality, but on a movie screen they’re a marvelously mangy crew.