Rated R for language, sex, and violence. The language is a bit much in this one. In college, the first playwriting course that I ever took gave us free range to do whatever we wanted. The first thing I did was litter the script with the f-bomb anytime I got the chance. I thought that was being realistic. The script, at least tonally, looked a lot like Uncut Gems. There's so much swearing that it almost comes across amateur at times. I don't know if it grants it a sense of reality or just of language in itself. The violence isn't often, but it is pretty brutal. The sex kind of just paints the world. Regardless, this is a pretty well deserved R rating.
DIRECTORS: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Oh man, ask my wife what her least favorite film ever was. She's a bit hyperbolic. She's told me multiple times that the movie we were watching was the worst movie ever. But I'm not going to hold it against her...because I didn't like it either. Now, I won't go anywhere near the worst movie I've ever seen. This is more in the category of...I didn't like it. That's reasonable. The issue that I had is that I wanted this to be Sandler's new breakout. I say " new breakout" because I think he really broke out of the typecasting he's been associated with in PTA's Punch-Drunk Love. But I was rooting for him. When I heard that there was Oscar buzz, I knew it was well founded. Sandler's a pretty good actor. His silly roles are silly on purpose. It's not like he can't act. He's just really good at being a silly character in his films. But after seeing Uncut Gems, I get why the Academy may have passed on nominating this movie.
I'm a guy who runs a blog. I have no desire to make movies. I normally try to keep these essays more analytical than evaluative. But either something in my tone or in my words outright gives an indication of what I feel about the movie. Blame my stream of consciousness. I mentioned in the MPAA section that the script felt pretty amateurish. It's the F-word over and over again. Like, it's so many. It's Boondock Saints. There's something kind of sexy when newer filmmakers make an edgy piece. I remember being a big fan of Suicide Kings. It speaks to the college student in me who wants to scream "Look at this different thing!" But ultimately, these movies tend not to be that different. They really read "talented-film-school." Uncut Gems is an exploration in misery. I don't hate that element of it. I often preach absolutely miserable films because part of me wants to be edgy. But I really don't the the Safdies are really offering something that is saying anything new. Rather, the movie is really a look at the microcosm of a pretty bleak industry filled with people who misprioritize every thing.
Howie is a hard character to graft onto. We're dumped right into the thick of Howie's life. We don't see the moments in Howie that let us into a world that will spiral out of control. There are hints of a good man in there, but mostly we don't get to see that character shift. Howie is a dirtbag from moment one and ends the film as an even bigger dirtbag. What makes him slightly sympathetic isn't redeeming character traits. Instead, we know that this was Howie's big break and the only source of light in the film is the concept that maybe he could get out of this world if he's just proven right for once. Defining Howie is super easy. He really only cares for himself. There are times when he says words that may reflect a slightly altruistic nature. But really, the most emotionally vulnerable he gets at any point in the film is showing a modicum of humanity to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, played by Idina Menzel. ("Girl, you need to 'let HIM go!'" I also hate me right now.) Howie is the epicenter of a world that he considers against him. The frustrating part of it is all is that he's right. The world is against him succeeding. But that's kind of true of reality. Because Howie is going down a get-rich-quick pass, he schemes work. But he is immediately stripped of that success over-and-over again because he keep avoiding the heavy lifting of life. It's actually kind of a miracle that Howie is as successful as he is.
As a metaphor, Howie works better then he does as a character. Howie is gambling addiction. I don't know if the Safdies ever really go into formal moralizing about a character, but they do seem to come down on toxic gambling pretty hard. Howie keeps hitting small successes in his career. The universe that the Safdies build does one of two things: Howie either has to gamble the money away immediately or someone will take it from him. Perhaps Howie lives with a black-and-white fallacy running through his moral core. Those two options are the only thing that really drive the character forward. Early in the film, Howie strikes it pretty big on a bet. Now, Howie often doesn't sit on his hands. He's a very kinetic guy. When he's closing one deal, he's simultaneously opening another deal. It's why people don't like him. But there is one time when he hit is big. My wife and I, immediately, start screaming at the screen, "Pay off the guy you owe." We're just staring at the end of a plot thread and we needed to have resolution. Instead, this is the one time he sits on his hands. He tells everyone that he made it big. This is odd logic, but it is also studio logic, but he God of Uncut Gems takes Howie's money away because he didn't immediately gamble it away. He's kidnapped and it is revealed that the bet was never really placed. It's such a weird moment. Everything in this part of the movie is built to increase tension, but it is all based on a lie. Howie's inaction for one second changes the rules of the story. It is taken out of the protagonist's hands and given to the power of fate. It's so odd because Howie was going to make bad choices with that money, even if the bet was cancelled. Instead, the money being taken away simply abandons that plot and keep Howie in the status quo.
I think what the Safdies are doing, which is actually pretty successful, is really highlighting the very specific attitude of the diamond district. Howie seems based on someone real. Listen, Uncut Gems crushed. It absolutely slayed critically and I'm in the minority of people who thought it could be way better. Okay, me and the Academy. But Uncut Gems is really a 2 hour and 15 minute character study of a static protagonist who keeps getting himself into trouble until his ultimate self-destruction. He has this imaginary set of rules to how people are supposed to work and when someone doesn't follow those rules, Howie dies. (Again, everything on these pages is cool with spoilers.) But hear me out: you know that there's a real Howie out there. You know that there's someone exactly like that. I bet you that's what people find compelling about Sandler's performance. He nailed the real Howie, whoever he might be. But I think that this works way more as a documentary than it does a fictional character piece. With a fictional narrative, there's expectation of growth and structure. Uncut Gems has a story, surrounding the titular gems at the beginning that are Howie's hope for success. But the gems are...kind of Macguffin-y. Also, who didn't see that overinflation of the price at the beginning? It's telltale throughout and, when the bottom falls out, you aren't really all that shocked. But following a real-life Howie around does some interesting things. How is woefully ignorant about how valuable he is to the world. He acts like a big shot when, really, he's an obnoxious mess that you should distance yourself from immediately. We expect moments of self-awareness from a character like that. That's the reason we have these mildy touching scenes with his son and his wife. It makes us have hope for Howie that he can change. Because he hope that he can grow, he gets all the more frustrating when he doesn't. But think about a documentary. There's something really sick inside of us that we don't want documentary subjects to get better; we want them to get worse. Golly, I can't believe I'm making this comparison, but a real life Howie would just be Joe Exotic. If Joe Exotic got his life back together, that documentary would suuuuuuuucccckkkkk. But when he becomes crazier as time goes on, it's just watching the dumpster fire burn. But it doesn't play that say way in a fictional story. In fiction, we need people to learn from their mistakes.
The final bet, while being the most compelling part of the film, is about thirty minutes of frustration because the issue has been removed from the character's hands. Let's put it on the plot mountain: Howie getting the money from KG is the crisis moment. His internal conflict is to fix his life or to go deeper in debt. He chooses the latter. Usually, a crisis moment is immediately followed by the climax. That climax in this film is really dragged out...except for people who know the outcome of this game. I didn't, so at least I got some kind of narrative entertainment from the suspense. But everything's out of Howie's hands when he gets rid of the money. So we have this 20-30 minute sequence where the protagonist has nothing to do with his own fate because the final decision's been made for him. We're just waiting to see what the consequences for that action are. So the story kind of mentally ends at that point because Howie fails to grow as a character. Instead, it becomes about setting. That's a bummer storytelling wise.
The whole thing feels like it is an exercise of style versus substance. Because Howie doesn't grow, I spend the majority of the movie judging him. It's a different character, but it is kind of like watching a toxic member of the family continue to make the same mistakes over and over again in life. Humanity in the world of Uncut Gems is terrible and what's to be gained by watching that. If the world is toxic, I need someone who is willing to go against that and potentially fail. If the world is glorious, a character like Howie might actually be pretty compelling. But when the world sucks and the character sucks, it feels very much like business-as-usual.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.