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Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Stars: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Mike Francesa, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher, Abel Tesfaye
Uncut Gems releasing (widely, at least) during the holidays actually makes perfect sense. It's hard to immediately recall the last time prestige critical acclaim and a true-blue crowd-pleaser lined up this congruously. Here's a movie helmed by film media darlings, on a totally original, IP-less script (although I would totally watch a Howard Ratner versus Connie Nikas team-up in the Safdie Cinematic Universe) that would nonetheless have a high success rate among all varying members of the family for the post-dinner watch.
I saw it for the first time almost three months ago. It was one of the most visceral movie-watching experiences I'd had in a long time, an experience that's stayed with me thus far. As the movie spreads, I'm hearing reports of similar viewing interactions. A crowd of people shooting out of their seats during a pivotal tipoff. Outcries during the ending. Uncut Gems might not even be as consistently intense as the Safdie brothers' previous rollercoaster Good Time—there are more moments to breathe at least, before the cart goes full tilt in the final 30 minutes—but nevertheless, it's a shot of pure adrenaline to the heart, served with a side of substance.
This movie couldn't work without Sandler, whom the brothers pluck from the rolling hills of Netflix Mount Olmypus and cast down into an uber-specific circle of hell: Manhattan's Diamond District. But pitch-perfect casting is just one piece of a puzzle that goes into creating a new, all-time character. The movie works because of how deeply realized Sandler's Howard Ratner is on all levels of production, from Sandler and his castmates analyzing his every decision, to costume, to the brothers' deep reverence of him to a point they deem calling him an "antihero" as derisive. And it's that emotional investment, that perfect mix of sleaze, charm, empathy, pity, and even a little admiration that leaves the film lodged in your brain long after the fact and begging for a rewatch.
If Good Time was the critically acclaimed major-label debut, Gems is the mainstream-aspiring double-down aiming straight at Album of the Year. Whether it'll get that far is unclear, and also beside the point. What it does, unequivocally, is confirm the Safdies as auteurs who are here to stay, with a loyal and equally audacious creative group behind them. A handful of veteran directors put out some of their best work in 2019. The Safdies are the future. They represent the future Scorsese wants, which is probably why he produced Gems, even as he pens NYT op-eds bracing for a cinematic dystopia. Betting on the new class to keep the art alive against all odds? That's how we all win. —Frazier Tharpe