Adam Sandler. We know he can’t act. He’s the latter-day embodiment of a certain type of late-1970s, New York frat-boy cultural specimen who tended to be drawn to the toilet-centric early work of Howard Stern, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Monty Python, and the Ramones. Goofball Adam—he’s always been a kind of uncut gem himself.
He made up that now-famous song years ago on “Saturday Night Live”: “Han-Han-Hannukkah is fun-fun-funnukkah….” Adam is not an actual actor.
Oh yeah? Really? Wanna bet? Of course he’s an actor. He’s been a household name in American cinema for decades. Someone with that enduring level of celebrity can absolutely act—just like Cher, Joan Rivers, and Lady Gaga. Maybe not Madonna. Sandler just didn’t have the right dramatic material yet.
Now he does. Like a mash-up of both John Turturro and Ed Norton’s characters in the poker-gambling film “Rounders,” Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a tinted-glasses-wearing, goateed, crazymaking, gambling-addicted, motor-mouthed, charismatic, sleazy, schmoozing sports fan of a Manhattan diamond merchant. He’s got sports-betting and money-grubbing street smarts that border on the savant. And his heart is somehow, well, kind. Perfect role for him.
Ratner’s shop in the Big Apple’s diamond district is a watering hole for a variety of social vermin as well as those looking for a nice rock to go down on one knee with. Ratner specializes is some seriously tacky pieces, like diamond-encrusted Furbies with manually movable eyes. And if Ratner keeps living on the gambling edge, his shop will soon also be attracting bounty hunters.
Ratner’s barely holding it together; he’s that kind of individual with a particular kind of grit that thrives on the chaos of a myriad shifting deals, of sudden setbacks, a fed-up wife, a too-young mistress, and the ever-present, unsavory gangster fringe of loan sharks and bookies he owes.
One of these would-be debt collectors is Arno (Eric Bogosian), who would seriously hurt Ratner if it weren’t for the fact that he’s also married to Ratner’s wife’s sister. So Arno merely locks Ratner, naked, in Ratner’s car’s trunk as an interim retribution.
So there Howie Ratner is, texting in the trunk from the parking lot, while his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) watches their daughter in a school play. She comes out, unlocks the trunk with nothing more than an eye-roll, clearly having seen this sort of thing before, and leaves him. After foraging up some clothes, Ratner’s back in his seat watching his daughter, like nothing strange just happened. That level of insanity.
Ratner Finds an Uncut Gem
Ratner gets hold of a rare, uncut African opal (through some unsavory connections; it arrives packed in a dead fish). Kevin Garnett (the actual former Boston Celtics star, playing himself) sees it, and, hearing of its origin, wants it for its mother-Africa mojo that might inspire him to play better basketball.
Garnett was brought to Ratner’s showroom by Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), who Ratner hired to schmooze the hip-hop crowd and the athletes with tales of rare trinkets and bling, and also brings in occasional high-end watches. From whence they cometh is unclear.
“Uncut Gems” is set in the not-too-distant past, which makes it feel like Garnett, who retired in 2016, is still playing. Garnett must have that uncut opal, and he must have it now, so they work out a deal where he can carry it around for a day in exchange for his giant, white-gold Celtics championship ring (with an inlaid emerald clover) as collateral.
Then, Ratner catches a lucky break (maybe it was Garnett’s clover ring?) and gets the inside scoop on a bet with a potential massive payoff. Being the unrecovered hardcore gambler he is, Ratner immediately pawns Garnett’s ring for cash to place the bet. Because what insider info might that be? The Celtics game being played that night, of course.
Reaching the Boiling Point
Eventually, we’ve got Ratner pacing in his showroom gesticulating wildly about the game, the debt-collecting gangsters watching him through the bulletproof glass of his elevator where he’s managed to trap them due to a lucky circuit-breaker malfunction, and Garnett scoring—clearly that uncut gem is making him win.
Ratner’s life is an elaborate train wreck waiting to happen, where we see the boulder sitting on the tracks, but he manages last second to shunt the train down an alternate set of tracks we didn’t see over there in the underbrush. It’s a pressure cooker—a cunning yet hapless clown juggling 15 balls simultaneously, and it’ll seriously raise your blood pressure.
The question is, do you feel the need to do that? “Uncut Gems” is like the dark, serious cousin of “Midnight Run,” another film about taking gambles, debt-collecting, and juggling a million catastrophes.
What actually ruined this film for me was the bizarre, ’80s-inflected, mostly synthesizer score. Had this had a blues background from some Elmore James flick or even a darker version of the comedically bluesy soundtrack of “Midnight Run,” it would have been a winner. That is, again, if you want to raise your blood pressure unduly. Then again, those movies are about tough guys, and our Howie is not tough like that. So maybe not. But it needed something.
All performances shine, especially, of course, Sandler’s. But Kevin Garnett, like LeBron James before him, could actually have a second career as an actor.
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 25
Rated: 3 stars out of 5