Not unlike The Exorcist, Uncut Gems opens with a creepy prologue set thousands of miles away, in the desert. Here we're at an Ethiopian opal mine, where a horribly injured worker is carried out, distracting his fellow miners and their Chinese bosses while two shiftier miners sneak back in to discover a lump of rock containing a fabulous array of opals.
This rock will eventually find its way to New York, becoming a source of inspiration for a jewel dealer named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), as well as for Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, playing himself. Whether it's charmed or cursed is a question that lingers in the background of Uncut Gems, which follows Howard through stressful days and nights as he juggles family obligations, a gambling addiction, variously threatening creditors, a needy mistress, and above all his dream of making a million dollars off that cluster of opals.
Although Howard is financially successful, as played by Sandler and as written and directed by the Safdie Brothers (with help from cowriter Ronald Bronstein), he is an archetypal Born Loser: plans keep blowing up in his face, almost nobody particularly likes him, and even his long-suffering wife (Idina Menzel) calls him the most annoying person she's ever met. I was reminded of the excellent 1950 noir Night and the City and a hundred similar films: with a schmuck like this pinning his hopes on an elusive financial windfall while dodging underworld thugs, it's a safe bet that his story won't end well. How Uncut Gems arrives at its inevitable conclusion almost doesn't matter, for with its fluid camerawork, quick edits, and two hours of F-bombs screamed at the top of the actors' lungs, it's really more of a sensory experience than a drama, owing as much to Gaspar Noé's vertiginous bad trips as it does to Martin Scorsese's badda-bing fantasias.
Such nonstop macho chaos may give some viewers a headache, but I at least bought into Howard's story, and while it's nearly impossible to sympathize with this worm of a man, you do find yourself wanting to know what happens to him. I've always found Adam Sandler a capable dramatic actor, so it's no surprise that he delivers such a dedicated performance, even if his false teeth do much of the work. The Safdies' frenzied style may be very much of this time and place – in other words, it may not age well – but for the characters and milieu of Uncut Gems, it works perfectly. You'll walk away exhausted and perhaps a bit depressed, but at least you'll feel like you saw a living and breathing movie.