Watching "Uncut Gems" is torturous. As you watch a shady protagonist go to increasingly desperate lengths in order to pull off a big score, you get the feeling that things can't end well.
In less capable hands, a movie like this might be obnoxious or dismissible. But the spell cast by the directorial team of Josh and Benny Safdie is all-consuming. You can't look at the unlikable characters with disdain, because you feel trapped along with them, and hopeful that they will scramble to succeed.
Set over an increasingly disastrous 2012 weekend, "Uncut Gems" is a dream/nightmare role for Adam Sandler, and easily his strongest performance to date. He plays Howard Ratner, a New York City Diamond District jeweler who is always looking to cut corners, jump on ill-advised get-rich-quick schemes and run scams on anyone he feels he'll be able to strong-arm or ignore.
That includes his harried wife (Idina Menzel), from whom he strays and promises a divorce that he keeps on pushing back. His teen children are also among his victims. He does the minimum to keep up the appearances of a family man while constantly running around for "work," which often includes haplessly trying to control his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who is always exploiting Howard's vanity for cons of her own. Everyone in the film is always working an angle on everyone else, and the shifting power dynamics make for absorbing suspense.
Menzel's simmering angst is an ideal complement to Sandler's frenzied explosiveness. The third key component to the cast is retired NBA star Kevin Garnett, who plays himself as Howard's make-or-break client. Nuanced and relatable, Garnett shows off acting chops that match those of LeBron James. Garnett shows a similar fire and intensity in his role as he did on the court, and is a formidable presence who looms large over Howard's descent through the layers of his personal hell.
It's easy to make the comparison that Sandler -- once one of Hollywood's funniest actors, who has been mired in a creative slump for more than a decade -- is an uncut gem himself. He twists the angst and insecurity he showed in his best comedies into a powerful and relentlessly gripping performance here. The way he manages to get you to empathize with his dirtbag character is overwhelming. I was so thoroughly drawn into the film that I found myself pinned to the back of my seat, murdering the armrests and, at times, gasping and muttering at the screen.
Anyone who's ever gambled a little bit too much on a sporting event will feel the chaotic pain and boisterous exuberance that Howard shows while watching basketball games. He makes destructive bets, both on games and in life, without thinking the consequences through, but matches his recklessness with a resigned fatalism whenever things go sideways and he finds himself worse off than when he started. Ever grasping for the next angle that he hopes will let him claw his way out of whatever mess in which he finds himself, Howard is his own worst enemy. Which is saying something, because he is surrounded by nasty and brutal adversaries.
There's little pleasurable in the experience of watching "Uncut Gems." It grabs you by the scruff of the neck, trips you and stomps you in the gut. And yet you continually come back for more because you find yourself captivated on a level few films ever come close to approaching. With the precision of a jeweler's laser, the filmmakers and cast spellbind you with their alluring and overpowering bauble.
RATING: 4 stars out of 4.