Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Chaotic Universe

Uncut Gems (2019)    

***Spoiler Review***

Uncut Gems came out three days ago, I've seen it twice. It really did live up to the hype. Everything you've heard about the movie in the run-up to its release is true. The Safdie Brothers have delivered a hyper realistic monument to gambling degenerates, and  it's a classic we'll be discussing for years to come.

Even though it's in the first sentence of just about every piece you've read on the movie, the manic and tense nature of this film cannot be understated, It roars open in an Ethiopian opal mine, hundreds of miners are yelling over themselves due to an accident on site. It's chaotic and riotous and it really sets the tone for the entire movie, it closes in a similar chaotic fashion. Moment after moment will have you pulled as tight as you've been in some time. The scene in specific where KG gets locked in the jewelry store is the most stressed I've been in a movie theater all year. I mean seriously bring a fucking seat belt and buckle up, cause this movie is a ride.

After a 2001-esque journey through a stone (more on that momentarily) we are transported to New York City's Diamond District. The setting is just as cacophonous as the Ethiopian opal mine, the noise is something that will either make or break this movie for you. There are constantly conversations layered on conversations, non-stop sound on top of sound, and a pulse pounding score that really drives it all home. I loved the attention to noisy background detail. People that dig sound design are guaranteed to be thoroughly impressed with the way Uncut Gems really uses it as one of the main characters in the film. Speaking of main characters it's time we got to the real gem of this movie, Howard Ratner, played in the performance of his life by Adam Sandler.

Howard Ratner isn't someone you are supposed to love. The Jewish diamond merchant with a penchant for making absolutely terrible life choices isn't a role model and has very few redeeming qualities.  He's an adrenaline junkie and degenerate gambler. Almost every word out of his mouth is a lie, his marriage is falling apart and he's thousands of dollars in debt. He is no one you should admire. However, in spite of all this, I couldn't help but be completely enraptured by him, intastanly falling in love with his charisma and sheer magnetism. Even though Howard is making bad decision after bad decision because of Sandler's tenderness and kind nature we are still drawn to him. Wanting so bad to reach into the screen and save him from himself. It's a testament to Sandler's masterwork that we still empathize and care about his plights. I feel like Howard Ratner might be in the top 10 of most compelling characters this decade and most definitely has cemented himself as a gambling degenerate icon.

Pictured: Nominee for Best Performance in a Drama 2019

One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Howie is "Selling" the opal to KG. It's one of the few times in the movie that he is really in his element, no fucking up, no bad decisions, just a diamond merchant selling the fuck out of a stone to a basketball player. Julia Fox looks at him with subtle smile as he's weaving a story about the universe and time itself, this is a man doing business, and for a moment Howie is perfect, like his opal. It's beautiful.

The other players are just as fantastic. Idina Menzel, in a role where she doesn't sing a word, is dynamic. Her disdain and hate for Howard oozes through the screen, you can feel her gaze even off screen. Kevin Garnett, in his first, and hopefully not his last, role on screen is powerful. I know he's not taking a lot of risk playing himself here, but he fits the big screen so comfortably and I really hope to see him again. Lakeith Stanfield just continues his meteoric rise to superstardom, I haven't seen him in a bad thing yet. (Shout out to my Atlanta Stans.) and my god, Julia Fox, she is a Greek Goddess and apart from that probably the actress I'd bet the most on to be in more content in the coming years. The Safdie's really have a flair for the authentic when it comes to the background players too, it's well documented that any actors we meet in a casino or pawn shop are all real people. In particular I loved the Jewish pawnbroker in the scene where Howard pawns the rings.

In fact anytime we are in a pawn shop or casino and the dialog falls into degenerate specific jargon, I was just on cloud 9 and watching Sandler watch a basketball game he's bet on is seriously something I would pay a monthly subscription for. He lives and dies on every play and it's something I truly connected with while watching the film. His orgasmic reactions to hitting a bet were so fucking hilarious. I won't lie, the fact that outside of this movie I am completely in love with sports gambling has definitely given me a positive bias towards the film.  However, you don't need to know anything about parleys or moneylines to enjoy it, just adds a little extra juice if you do.

Quick aside for the gambling adept out there though, the low-key most stressful part of this movie is the fact that Howard puts "opening tip" on his parleys. It's by far the most degenerate gambling behavior I've ever seen in film. I've never seen that bet before but I'm sure I will now, and from here on out I'm calling 3 way player points, rebounds, and opening tip parleys "The Howard"

The movie isn't all yelling and stress, Sandler and specifically Menzel really have a chance to shine in the films quieter moments. I found myself feeling the most melancholy in these scenes because you are reminded of a time that Howard's wife really loved him. Perhaps, once upon a time, when he wasn't an addict or a total fuck up. He was once a successful diamond merchant, maybe even a good father and husband. In these scenes you know the anxiety and tension is coming back, it's always on the fringes, and that in itself adds yet another veneer of stress.

The Safdie's are experts at this point and it really has been a delight to go back and watch their entire filmography. They are just getting better with each film. They have a flair for the visually dramatic and really know how to ground their films in reality, a trait that is a welcome change from the overproduced CGI overload that is rampant in Hollywood at the moment. (Seriously see Good Time as soon as you can, as of this writing it's on Amazon Prime.) 

The crown jewel of this movie is Sandler's "This is how I win" speech and man if I don't see it on multiple award montages this year then I'm boycotting all future shows. It's fucking electric. One of the few times in the movie where Howard gets to really shine. I was ready to run through a brick wall as soon as it was over. It's so important that his character gets this moment. It tells you all you need to know about Howard. He has the money in his hands to solve all his problems, but it's the classic gamblers dilemma. When you've won an amount of money that you know should be more, it's not viewed as winning. In Howard's brain it's losing. He didn't gain $175,000 he lost $825,000. He knows the gem was worth over a million. So he does the only thing he knows how to do, chase the thrill and risk everything. When you've lived with stress the way Howard has, you develop a tolerance for it. He not only wants the stress, he lives for it. He knows his life is on the line and it's the most content we see him in the entire movie. At one point during the climatic game he joyously shouts "This is the beauty of betting!" a moment earlier he was being held outside a 4 story window. This is Howard's existence and you know the reckless lifestyle he lives can only end one way.

This Is How I Win Speech Forever.

When Howard catches the bullet my entire theatre gasped, I gasped. The cathartic relief you feel when the bet hits, followed by his quick death was a shocking contrast, and it's a shocking death to be sure. But, upon reflection you really know there was only one way out for him. Yeah he had just won the bet of his life, and with it over a million dollars, but would that have really solved Howard's problems? You've just spent 135 minutes with the man, you don't need any persuading to know the answer. Watching the thugs tear apart Howard's store was the perfect touch to drive home the capitalistic message of the movie as well. Greed and money are the only motivations in this story and world the Safdie's have fabricated, and it's our world, make no mistake about it. They know the truth, that very rarely are we ever allowed a Hollywood ending.

The last shot of this film takes us on another 2001-esque dreamscape through the universe, and quite literally, through Howard and I've spent a lot of time thinking about why. It's because the universe is all of us, on one end of it an Ethiopian miner is extracting a 600 carat stone from the earth and on the other end there is a Jewish gambler sweating out the opening tip of a Celtics game. Two wholly different worlds but one in the same universe. Although the two are unknown to one another the choices they make can reverberate throughout eternity and change their lifetimes. That's the message I took away from Uncut Gems. It's all life and death, it's everything and nothing.

Special shoutout to A24 they are just so consistent, and far and away the best distribution company in Hollywood. There isn't even a competition for 2nd place. The freedom they give to artists is inspiring and should be commended. I've never been as happy with a company as I am with them. Just kudos all around to those guys.

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