Although I wouldn’t call myself an Adam Sandler fan, I was nonetheless drawn to the trailer for Uncut Gems when I originally saw it in theaters. I immediately wanted to see what he would do with a serious role that was tailored specifically for him. The psychedelic visual motifs in the trailer and the fact that the directors were relatively unknown all but secured my ass in the theater seat to see this flick.
What I thought was going to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of gambling addiction and stealing from the mob seemed to be more in favor of the protagonist’s behavior than not by the end of the movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Uncut Gems has a lot of anti-intellectualist vibes. An obvious clue would be the fact that the movie’s plot is centered around the idea that a fictionalized version of Kevin Garnett thinks that a rock will give him magical basketball powers.
If reveling in the lives of skeevy con men and superstitious imbeciles doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then the borderline pretentious cinematography gimmick of zooming in on subjects until they are out of focus certainly will. This isn’t the say that the film isn’t self-aware enough to effectively convey the morale of the story that gambling is bad, but rather that it spends so much of its run time focused on that idea that it fails to mention the other elephants in the room.
Ultimately, Uncut Gem’s main selling point pays off in spades, both in Adam’s ability to slip into such an interesting character and in his supporting cast’s ability to bring life and believability to an otherwise comically ridiculous bunch of characters. Julia Fox’s acting is superb, especially given that this is her first role in a feature film. I suspect that Mr. Sandler will receive most of the praise for his performance in Uncut Gems, but Ms. Fox shows that you don’t have to make three decades worth of bad movies first before putting on a killer showcase of raw acting talent.
As I sat on this review, I began thinking about how the marketing and trailer specifically affected my expectations going in, my thoughts during the film, and my opinion on it after the fact. There is a powerful scene in the movie that was mined for Uncut Gem’s marketing campaign where Howard says “This is how I win!” If this were a more traditional movie, I would expect that line to cap off a redemption arc for an otherwise unlikeable anti-hero who is down on his luck.
While the trailer presented Howard’s “winning” scene as an example of his prowess and confidence, the actual movie portrays it very differently. What comes off as a self-congratulatory brag without any context is actually Howie awkwardly floundering as he explains how he conned Kevin Garnett and himself out of a significant amount of money over a stupid rock. In fact, Howard doesn’t win in the end at all.
What left me with a sour taste in my mouth after immediately leaving the theater has now turned into an appreciation for clever marketing more than anything. Sure, the movie could have been an extra thirty minutes longer with a redemption arc for Howard in which he regains control over his finances and fixes his life. In the end, I don’t think I would have seen that movie, however. The ending left me with a Seinfeldian sense that the plot ultimately didn’t matter, but that may very well be the point. Maybe Howard was doomed from the start and watching his rapid downward spiral is enough of a thrill ride by itself without having to manufacture a happy ending for him.
I’ve had a lot to say about this movie, but I would absolutely recommend seeing Uncut Gems even if it’s just to witness the movie first hand for yourself. I didn’t enjoy the flick half as much as I’ve enjoyed talking about it, but that’s still enough of a pro in my book to warrant a recommendation. Seeing Adam Sandler enjoy acting again is worth the price of admission alone, but you’ll also enjoy the claustrophobic cinematography, a variety of interesting side characters, and an ending that you both see coming from a while away and still gasp at when it finally hits you in the face like a brick.
Uncut Gems could be an incredible movie with a few adjustments (namely punching up the pacing a bit and letting Trent Reznor compose the soundtrack), but on its own, it’s still a pretty damn good movie with a lot of great actors and a plot that will keep you pulled along for the ride. It does all this despite the fact that its foundation is pretty flimsy under further inspection and you definitely could have gone to see 1917 instead.