Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
His name is Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), and he deals in jewels, watches, gems—all that glitters is gold to him. Back in the day, Howard sold oversized jewelry to rappers making videos or going out on the town. He probably made a good living at it too—judging by his home in the ‘burbs, his apartment in the city, and those designer clothes. But looks can be deceiving, and the more time you spend with Howard, the more you start to see through the fast talk and faster money.
Uncut Gems, the third film from the electric Safdie brothers (Benny and Josh)—out now on home video from The Criterion Collection—opens a world away from Howard’s Diamond District, in the mines of Ethiopia, where two day-laborers sneak past guards and excavate a small rock dotted with black opal. As Howard later says, if you look into the opal, you can see all the heavens in the sky. What do the Safdies see? The inside of Howard’s colon. Today might be the most important day of Howard’s life, and he starts it face down on the slab, his doctor searching for cancerous polyps.
From black opals to black holes, the Safdies are having fun. They follow Howard as he scurries across town, from jewelry store to pawnshop, from home to apartment, from wife (Idina Menzel) to mistress (Julia Fox), from his kid’s high school play to his in-law’s house for Passover. All the while, Howard promises everything and delivers nothing. Even the value of his opal is in question—he thinks it’s worth a million, the reality is far less.
The only thing real in Howard’s life is the constant screech of voices trying to shout over each other and his helpless addiction to gambling. Everywhere Howard goes, it’s a flurry of voices and noise. It makes us feel uncomfortable. It should make Howard feel uncomfortable, but he’s learned to drown it out. Like any addict, Howard has taught himself not to see the numerous warning signs. Most of us would think twice about our life choices if we ended up locked in the back of our own car, stark naked, at our children’s high school parking lot. But not Howard. He’s just dodged another bullet, that’s all. He’ll win again tomorrow.
Howard does win, eventually. But he also loses. So it goes. The more you watch, the more it feels like Howard stepped off the pages of a Dostoyevsky novel and landed in the streets of New York City. And Sandler makes a meal out of it. There’s nothing lazy about him or the movie surrounding Howard.
There’s also nothing satisfying about Howard’s drive—in the classical sense. Howard loves to win or, more accurately, Howard loves the act of winning. There’s nothing left once you won, just the need to move on to the next one—a bigger one, a more dangerous one. There’s only one way this all ends, and Howard is fine with that, as long as he wins on the way out.