You probably remember the days when Christmas packages had to be mailed by December 10 if you wanted them to arrive for Christmas. Then private industry entered the delivery market and changed everything. This past month I watched in awe as deliveries from UPS, FedEx, Amazon Trucking, and yes, even the US Postal Service brought packages to my door within two days of my ordering them. I received half a dozen packages on Christmas Eve alone, including one that had been redirected from an incorrect address the day before.
This nearly didn’t happen. In the early days of FedEx, founder Fred Smith faced a serious cashflow problem. The company was millions of dollars in startup debt. Pilots were purchasing fuel with their personal credit cards. Employees were agreeing not to cash their paychecks, knowing they would bounce anyway. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy, Smith took the company’s last $5,000 to the Las Vegas blackjack tables. He returned in less than a week with $27,000 and used that money to secure additional funding. How could he take such a risk with the last of the company’s cash? He figured he would probably lose it all in bankruptcy court, so the real risk was in not doing anything.
Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything.
Uncut Gems shows a different side of gambling — not the glitzy glamour of roulette wheels and craps tables and exciting payoffs but the dirty, violent, addictive side that entices with the promise not of wealth but of the euphoric adrenaline rush during the heady anticipation of winning. For Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) the desire is all consuming. He has to have that high.
The film’s frenetic, unrelenting pace mirrors Howie’s frenetic, unrelenting mania. The camera follows him from room to room and scene to scene without so much as a pause to orient the audience. Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything. The problem is, he doesn’t really want to fix everything, and he isn’t really after the money. Howie gets off on the risk and anticipation, the fear of losing it all and the release of fear when the game comes his way. Gambling is his cocaine. Winning is his euphoria. We don’t see any drug use in Uncut Gems, yet the movie is a story of freewheeling addiction — addiction to adrenaline.
Howie runs a jewelry store with an off-the-books, secondhand business in the back. As the movie opens he is working a deal to sell a 4,000-carat uncut black opal from Ethiopia through a Manhattan auction house. He expects to garner a million dollars on the deal. But he also has a short-term commitment with a loan shark that needs to be fixed today. (In fact, he has several such commitments.) So he uses the opal to solve several problems at once. He persuades Kevin Garnett (yes, the basketball star, playing himself) that the opal can give him good luck. Then, taking Garnett’s NBA ring as collateral in exchange for letting Garnett keep the opal overnight, Howie pawns the ring for cash; sends a photo of the cash to a loan shark, implying he is on his way to pay the loan; shakes off the heavies of another loan shark by giving them a fake Rolex; heads to his bookie, where he uses the money from Garnett’s ring to bet on Garnett and the Celtics, and finally gives way to the gambler’s euphoria as he watches the game — in which Garnett is in top form, because of his new talisman. All in a day’s work.
If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it.
But Howie doesn’t have time for the big hustle. Every plan has to be made on the fly. He’s entirely short-term oriented, because every moment could be his last. We feel his rising panic as he deals with big-time loan sharks and big-time enforcers who could kill or maim him at any moment. (Howie’s poorly capped teeth suggest an enforcer has taught him a lesson in the past, although how he lost his original teeth is never mentioned.) Like every compulsive gambler, he believes his plan will work and the next big win is as good as in his hands. Then he’ll pay everyone off and everything will be fine.
Like many gambling addicts, Howie is a family man. He was once the kind of guy who takes out the recycling on Wednesday night, recites the prayers at Passover, and attends his kid’s school play. And he still does all that. But he’s always distracted by his latest bet and yesterday’s collectors. If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife (Idina Menzel) to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it. She doesn’t even ask him what happened.
Howie is desperate but not hopeless, and therein lies the key to his character. Hope drives him. In that sense he is the eternal optimist. He’ll do anything, pawn anything, and promise anything to get out of the current jam and into the euphoria of a big score. The more cons he has going and the greater the risk, the higher he gets. Desperation is foreplay for him, and watching a game on which he has a big bet is orgasmic. It isn’t even about the money. When he wins big, he needs sex. But not with his wife. He needs Julia (Julia Fox), the beautiful mistress living in his downtown apartment. No wonder both are called scoring.
After Daniel Day-Lewis saw the film, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!
The camera work and musical score reflect Howie’s relentless determination. Usually dark and fast-paced, the music changes to a dreamy, jazzy arrangement whenever Howie is winning, to reflect his momentary euphoria. The lighting also brightens just a bit in those moments — not enough to be cheesy, but enough that you start to notice it after a while. The Safdie Brothers’ direction is controlled and masterful, even as Howie’s story is frenetically spinning out of control. This frenzy also spills into the audience, as the nearly two and a half hour film feels like 90 minutes. Kevin Garnett, too, is a revelation, delivering a believable performance that comes from deep within his soul, not sitting statically in front of his eyes, as happens with most sports figures who are called on to play themselves. His acting coach should have a separate listing in the credits.
Uncut Gems is a filmmaker’s film, and Sandler has come a long way from his silly Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison days. This isn’t his first foray away from comedy; he delivered excellent dramatic performances in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Spanglish (2004). But Uncut Gems is his most impressive — gritty, manic, and unrelenting as it follows the life of a crazed gambler who just can’t get enough. After Daniel Day-Lewis saw it, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!! I wouldn’t call it entertaining, and I’m not sure that you, dear reader, would enjoy it. But when funnyman Adam Sandler wins the Oscar for Best Actor, at least you’ll know why.