Landon’s Outlook TIFF 2019: ‘Uncut Gems’ blurs lines of comedy, tragedy 

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Landon Roberts, Contributing Writer

The seedy underbelly of New York was cemented in film history by the godfather of the New York crime genre, Martin Scorsese. But with the release of “Uncut Gems,” the title is challenged by directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie.

The Safdie brothers became household names in the independent film scene with the release of their critical darling “Good Time” in 2017. The high-octane film about a crime gone wrong was able to elicit snowballing paranoia on a shoestring budget by using harsh neon lights and a frantic camera that matched the onscreen mania.

So going into its follow up, “Uncut Gems,” I was expecting that same insanity to ensue. Instead, the film’s a largely comedic one about greed and obsession.

The story follows a jeweler named Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, who stumbles upon a treasured African opal that is sure to earn him millions. When word gets out about his opal, the loan sharks Howard has dealt with in the past start to pressure him for the money he owes. This results in a series of financial decisions that are both hilarious and tragic.

Ratner will go down as one of the most recognizable characters of the decade thanks to Sandler’s surprisingly great performance. The comedic chops Sandler was known for early on in his career are back and in full force. 

Sandler’s character is a performer that manipulates those who surround him. Every scene of him trying to interact with his high-profile customers — including former NBA athlete Kevin Garnett — is filled with awkward and clumsy attempts to sound hip. The fast-paced dialogue is perfectly timed with reaction shots of Ratner trying to understand what’s going on.

The charisma in each scene is made by frenetic bald-faced lies coated in irony and a surprising amount of sadness. As the film progresses and Ratner has to navigate his web of lies, that sadness reveals itself even more. This makes Sandler’s performance in the final act the perfect fall from grace.

He portrays regret in some heavy scenes near the end, making Ratner’s arc a true tragedy.

The Safdie brothers may be dealing with a different tone, but their stylized aesthetic still remains. Instead of the harsh neon lighting of their previous film, “Uncut Gems” is populated with deep blues and grays that add to the gritty world of crime Ratner finds himself in.

The synthesizer score also adds to New York’s menacing nature. A small yet distant drum pounds like a heartbeat, which increases in intensity and volume as Ratner’s stress rises.

The film finds itself in these tense moments only in the second half, presenting a disjointed feeling between the film’s comedic and serious scenes. The scenes switch between these tones at rapid speed, causing a whiplash of emotion. 

This is mostly due to the side characters that derail the plot and have no other purpose than comedic relief. The biggest offense of this is Julia Fox’s character, Julia, who is Ratner’s mistress. Their interactions are hilarious, but their relationship doesn’t really add anything to the overarching plot. 

With the few pacing issues aside, “Uncut Gems” is a tragic tale with a career great performance from Sandler and a vision that can only be executed by the Safdie brothers.

“Uncut Gems” will release Dec. 25.

Rating: 4/5

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