Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a successful New York jeweler and a compulsive gambler who spirals into a series of debts and bets, one of which involves NBA player Kevin Garnett (himself), all while trying to balance his failing marriage and his own demons.
Imagine the final twenty minutes of Martin Scorsese's 'Goodfellas', with Ray Liotta's character coked up to the hilt and rattling through dialogue as he keeps checking the sky for helicopters. Now imagine that level of sustained panic, tension and energy sprawled out for a full-length movie. That's what 'Unuct Gems' is. It's every bit as wired, crazed, and dogged as anything Scorsese made in his early career, but done with a level of panache and incredible force of personality that it propels itself past that obvious comparison.
Adam Sandler gives what is truly the best performance of his career in this, playing Howard Ratner with a level of understanding and commitment that puts him into the running for a Best Actor category. This, in a way, is what's so frustrating about Sandler's career in general - when he wants to, he can do incredible work and 'Uncut Gems' is the most recent example of it. The Safdie Brothers' script is littered with expletives, instantly quotable one-liners, and the kind of frantic cross-talk that you only get with crime movies of this kind.
The true skill in 'Uncut Gems', however, is that while it's all so chaotic and so desperate, you're never once unsure of what's happening, where it's happening, and why it's happening. Too often movies about gambling to this level rely on either painfully simple explanations of the events - to the point that it slows everything down - or that it makes itself deliberately confusing. Here, the Safdie Brothers balance it beautifully and actually gives it some kind of emotional context. Sandler's character is, quite simply, a gambling addict. He's hooked on the rush of it and the movie makes the audience if not sympathise, at least understand why it can happen.
The supporting cast is made of fascinating, deeply authentic characters that orbit Sandler's performance and leave an impact. Judd Hirsch, for example, is brilliantly placed in a scene with Sandler and Eric Bogosian, the loan shark who's been fronting many of his bets. Kevin Garnett, although he's playing himself, gives a fascinating performance as an athlete who is nothing if not determined to win at any cost - just like Sandler's character. Like any good New York movie, there are plenty of non-actor roles filled up with memorable performances, including sports commentator Mike Francesca as a bookie restauranteur who has one of the best lines in the movie.
There's so much of 'Uncut Gems' to love, but you get the sense that by the time the ending comes around, the wild ride is going to end in tears. After all, the comedown from something as sustained as this is never going to live up to what came before. All that said, 'Uncut Gems' houses what could be Adam Sandler's greatest on-screen performance. Glittering with promise, 'Uncut Gems' is a diamond-sharp crime thriller.