The Safdie Brothers Continue to Impress With 'Uncut Gems'
Movies have been around for over 100 years at this point. Apparently, that's enough time for filmmakers to tell every story possible because I can’t name the last time someone has come up with a truly never-before-seen concept. In fact, the idea that a never-before-seen concept even exists after humans have been telling stories for thousands of years may be a myth. What great filmmakers can do, however, is tell a story in a way that only they can. Some of the most “original” movies out there actually aren’t anything special if you break them down. The Big Lebowski is lifted directly from old noir films and detective novels that someone like Raymond Chandler would write. But no other movie has The Dude in it. Mulholland Drive is just a breakup movie. But only David Lynch could make a breakup movie like that. Do I even need to mention all the inspirations that Tarantino draws from films of the past or how basic his plots are at the core? But nobody else has made movies like his.
Well, Uncut Gems is also a story we’ve seen before. It's about an absurdly self-destructive and greedy man who makes irresponsible business decisions, owes money to bookies all over town, can’t control his vices, etc. Just one of the downward spiral movies it reminds me of is Bad Lieutenant. However, this movie offers a viewing experience that only the Safdie Brothers can create. And the only movies it is fair to compare it with are other things they’ve made, because they are filmmakers who can find originality with their style.
The Safdies have a knack for portraying deeply unhealthy and dysfunctional characters in an unflinchingly honest fashion. Their films—that I’ve seen, at least—have a sense of mania to them and a focus on realism, no matter how stylized they may be. Uncut Gems pushes this style to the most abrasive place it has gone. This is a movie that loves to stress the viewer out and it does so through the technical aspects. Almost every shot is an oppressive close-up done in shakycam. The chaotic, loud dialogue assaults the ears and recreates the horrors of trying to decide where to eat lunch with a large group. The subplots—of which there are many—make their way into every scene, crashing into each other and overlapping just to overwhelm us. Oddly enough, the craziness is all coated with an ambient soundtrack that would be relaxing if it wasn’t for the uncanny feel it brings to the whole affair.
It seems that every Safdie Brothers movie contains an unconventional casting choice, which adds to their realism. Obviously, we have to talk about Adam Sandler’s performance. A good chunk of this movie’s audience probably just went out of curiosity to see him in a dramatic role. What some may not know is Sandler already has a couple of dramatic roles under his belt and they are fantastic. I still think Punch Drunk Love is his best work but this movie is a close second. The character he plays is an asshole but Sandler, having played lovable assholes before, is able to create a level of sympathy for him. The casting choice makes perfect sense once you see it.
Another impressive performance which can’t be overshadowed is Kevin Garnett playing himself. The idea of having Sandler place bets on the Celtics’ 2012 semifinal games is a very clever plot device and basketball fans might remember how the games went. Therefore, the outcome of Sandler’s bets may not be surprising to them. It all comes together, though, with KG giving a completely natural and believable performance. Seeing him pull it off makes the realism even stronger and adds a touch of meta-comedy which I, for one, really appreciated.
Anyone who is a fan of the Safdie's other films, or is just curious about Sandler’s performance, needs to see this movie. It won’t disappoint on either front. Uncut Gems is not a movie for everyone though. It is absolutely anxiety inducing and oppressive during its 130-minute runtime. Some may be turned off by the intensity but it will be infectious to others. Either way, it's something fresh. And I’ll take that over a typical, mundane film any day.