The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Uncut Gems
In 2017 the indie film world was abuzz with new talent, fresh ideas and even a few heavy hitters taking a step back and thinking small. We had comedies like The Big Sick and Lady Bird, we had genre morphing films like A Ghost Story and The Florida Project. Even some of the biggest movies of the year were indies like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Phantom Thread and Jordan Peele's Get Out. In one of the best years for indie films in recent memory was when the Sadfie Brothers hit the scene with their crime thriller Good Time and even in a sea of great movies, film's newest familial directing duo had left their mark.
I was very much looking forward to the release of Good Time. I love a good stylized crime thriller and had heard good things about the talent of it's directors and maybe that is why I was a little less than thrilled with the final product.
Good Time is not a bad movie by any means, it is in fact a good movie but I think I was hoping for a little more. Robert Pattinson's performance was solid and the story was interesting but I just felt that the movie plotted along and when compared to some of the other movies released that year Good Time just felt a bit flat.
In 2019 the Sadfie Brothers now have some real clout and were able to pull an even bigger star for their passion project. Another crime thriller starring "The Sandman" Adam Sandler, the movie is Uncut Gems and since it's release has gotten pretty much universal acclaim. This time around I was a bit hesitant. I was not rushing out to see it like I had with Good Time, instead I waited for a rainy day with nothing to watch hoping that maybe the lack of hype would give me a more enjoyable viewing experience.
It is hard to tell just how much the Sadfie Brothers learned from their first experience with exposure as Good Time and Uncut Gems seem to suffer from almost the exact same issues. What does seem clear is that the brothers seems intent on digging in their heels and perfecting a style as Uncut Gems felt significantly more entertaining than it's predecessor.
For those uninitiated, Uncut Gems tells the story of Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler with a nasty gambling problem. Buffeted on all sides by issues from bookies shaking him down to a family life that is on the verge of collapse, every step he takes feels like one closer to the big one and at the same time one closer to his last. We enter the story with Howard receiving a long anticipated package, one containing a rare black opal that he sees as the solution to all his problems.
My immediate issue with the bulk of Uncut Gems is the fact that it's main character is literally despicable and completely devoid of any positive qualities whatsoever. Good Time had the same issue with it's main character Connie being a criminal and bad influence on his developmentally disabled brother. At least in Good Time the plot comes from Connie doing anything and everything to get his brother out of prison after committing a crime that was completely Connie's idea.
Howard Rather's drive in Uncut Gems comes from nothing more than being a complete degenerate gambler and needing to pay off his massive debts. He does not commit one selfless act in the entire 2 hour and 15 minute runtime and in fact constantly puts the innocent people in his life into danger on multiple occasions.
It is hard for a viewer to invest in characters when you want them to do the opposite of succeed, it is probable that the Sadfie's want you to feel the distain for Howard and wish for his failure but this inherently brings less emotion to the story and thus provides a less satisfying conclusion. Howard cannot even be categorized as an anti-hero as again, literally nothing he does can be viewed as anything but selfish.
If you have gotten this far into the review you would probably think that I disliked Uncut Gems, but you would be wrong. I actually ended up liking Uncut Gems and even quite a bit more than Good Time and there is one reason for that...tension.
About halfway through the movie all I could think was that this was more of the same, a story about a bad guy whose fate I would not care about because he is a scumbag and deserves to fail. As act 2 ends and we move to the climax there are a couple of scenes that made it all worth it. I will not spoil which ones or what they involve but they are some of the most gripping and more importantly surprisingly fun to watch scenes I have seen this year.
Good Time lacked that sort of edge of your seat tension and I think that is why I liked it a bit less than most did. Uncut Gems desperately needed these moments of extreme and intense emotion felt by the viewer, not for Howard but for the people around him. These scenes are worth the price of admission and propel Uncut Gems from a fine movie to a really good one.
To me most of the rest of the movie gets thrown in the wash. The Sadfie's know how to shoot and compose a story, but there are some strange potholes that come off as a bit shortsighted. The characters all feel real and grounded but there are times when the dialogue amounts to stereotypes and cliches. The structure for the most part succeeds in providing a satisfying cinematic crescendo but there are also some loose ends that I assume are red herrings to throw the audience off but just feel ultimately wasted.
I have now seen 2 Sadfie Brothers movies and it is clear that these guys are interested in telling stories about characters that are both unique and challenging. I very much respect that from film makers and I wish more would try to do the same. With both Good Time and Uncut Gems they opt to forgo the audiences investment in the character's and instead want them to focus on the story, but if they could just find a way to combine these theories I think they could really make an all time great in the years to come.