A Man Set on Self-Destruction
In Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” a man’s individual tragedy shows us the emptiness of the systems that define him. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a small-time jeweler with a gambling addiction who is struggling to stay ahead of creditors, pawning jewelry loaned to him by customers to raise money he needs to pay off sharks. Instead he spends cash on the latest basketball odds. Howard is a man for whom the big pay-off is always just a few steps away but steps that he cannot take. Yet, he manages to be endlessly optimistic. His balancing act is maintained on sheer force of will and his single-mindedness is overwhelming. Howard attempts to dominate every conversation, fast-talking over everyone from clients to creditors to his own wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), whose loathing of her husband signals that their marriage is nearing an end. But Howard makes the fatal error of believing himself to be the only true swindler in any given place even though he lives in an underworld populated entirely by hustlers. Howard never fools anyone. He talks so rapidly and incessantly to his debtors that he dazes them long enough to momentarily evade them for a short time.
By the time we meet Howard, his fragile way of life is starting to crumble. He is so heavily in dept to Arno (Eric Bogosian), an in-law and loan shark whose hired muscle (Keith Williams Richards) threatens Howard with beatings so he tries a way to get out of debt by ordering a valuable opal from an Ethiopian gem mine in the hopes of auctioning it for a massive profit. But because he cannot help himself, he complicates things by letting Kevin Garnett borrow the opal after the Celtics center visits his shop with another hustler, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). It seems to be a win-win situation since Garnett needs a good-luck charm during the Eastern Conference finals and Howard hopes to bet on the Celtics winning. However, things do not go that way.
The stress of this wreaks havoc on Howard, and the man’s hopelessness show him to be full of impotent fury. His attempts to sound calm suggest a man trying hard not to scream, which he frequently does. Howard issues orders with a finality that would convey authority were he not ignored by l everyone, and the more Howard cajoles and threatens the more pathetic he seems.
We see Howard’s diminishing sense of strength as he becomes doomed. The Safdie brothers do a wonderful job of directing this urban crime thriller with “loopy characters.”