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Movie Review: 'Uncut Gems' Is Beloved By All, But One


Sometimes you watch a movie and you feel like you just haven’t seen the same thing everyone else saw. For me, Uncut Gems, from directors Benny and Josh Safdie, is just such a movie, because the roar of praise behind it baffles me.

Adam Sandler plays Howard, a jewelry dealer who owes a whole lot of money after a whole lot of bad gambling decisions. He’s the kind of guy who never stops talking, hoping to overwhelm everyone else into buying whatever he’s selling. But instead of having the gift of ultimate persuasion, he has the gift of talking himself into the worst possible decision at all times. As this is Adam Sandler, I should stress this is a dramatic role, and he’s very good, though maybe not the revelation some people have made him out to be. But he’s distressingly believable as an addict, an adrenaline junkie, and a man with supreme — and supremely misguided — confidence. 

The movie itself mirrors Howard’s character, all jittery intensity, never letting up for a second. The Safdies obviously have the talent to be upper-tier filmmakers, but they have the sensibilities of college students talking about what would look really cool as they sit on the couch under their Mean Streets poster. It’s incredibly frustrating, because they’re often right—what’s supposed to look cool does look cool, what’s supposed to be grimy is terribly grimy, and they can certainly create unrelenting tension… although I did have trouble distinguishing between tension and my own irritation.

Because everything they do is empty and artificial. There’s nothing real about what’s going on. No one behaves like actual people, they only do what the Safdies want them to do as they play their own game, and nothing — nothing — exists organically; it’s all entirely manufactured to fulfill the Safdies’ ends. None of it’s there because it ought to be, it’s there because they want it to be. There is one exceptional 20-minute sequence near the end, though it hardly justifies what comes before, and certainly not what comes after, with the most hacky ending possible, a move that was edgy in 1994 but already tired and used up by 1995.

Still, the Safdies have their supporters—in fact, it seems that’s everyone but me, given Uncut Gems’ reception. But it feels like they’ve just pulled off a giant hustle, which frankly isn’t a terribly respectful thing to say of my fellow critics, so maybe it’s best if I just say that this movie is very, definitely, not for me.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.