Uncut Gems ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The Safdies' loud, assaultive follow-up to Good Time demonstrates the same morbid fascination with total fuckups, this time one played by a more basically likable star (Adam Sandler) but also bustling around in a grimmer and more desperate environment, the basic source of which (he's already in debt up to his ears before the film begins) remains unknown to us. It's not that the directors took joy in human folly in either film, but they treated it with more consistent wit last time; it's as if they feel too guilty on this goround to have as much fun with the sheer audacity of their premise. That said, the aesthetics and details here are certainly galvanizing, with Darius Khondji returning to the well of urban dread that made Se7en the subject of so many life-altering nightmares a generation ago. Sandler's Howard, introduced to us on a volatile weekend in 2012, is a locally famous jeweler who's got about a dozen balls in the air that we know about, the most important of which involves a priceless opal covertly shipped to him hidden in a box of fish; his periphery includes an obsequious mistress, Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett (in a magnificently fine-tuned performance), a wife who has fucking had it, sex playlist staple the Weeknd and a gaggle of morons, gangsters and hangers-on, all at the mercy of Howard's wheeling, dealing and Pong-playing.

Being the son of a man who made a habit of robbing Peter to play Paul in ways that occasionally verged on an existential threat if not outright mortal danger, I think I know Howard's type well, but the Safdies flesh him out with surprising depth while consistently making him look and sound utterly pathetic. (Sandler's "I'm so sad," wadded-up toilet paper protruding from his noise, is the laugh line of the year.) He makes Cary Grant in Suspicion look like Atticus Finch. The most telling scenes are those that place Howard in a broader context, in which even his wife attests he has a dumb face and is incredibly annoying. All true, and this reality-check angle is one new element that Good Time lacked, but it's also strangely hypnotic to watch Howard's good and bad attempts to crawl out of the mess, though it's here that the film lets us down a bit on its own terms. Whereas Robert Pattinson played Connie with just enough of a blankfaced naivete to make his many brazenly stupid actions believable, several of Howard's power moves make almost no sense except as setups for later plot points. Of course the real motivator is usually greed plus a certain haplessness, but it makes it harder to feel as involved in his plight as the filmmakers clearly hope you will be, and leaves one thinking of the film in terms of highlights rather than as a big organic story. Nevertheless, the climactic action is delivered perfectly and feels like a gut-punch.

I have to admit -- and here's an example of why I love cinema with all my heart but hardly talk to anyone about it except here, because I'm aware of how insufferably contrarian things like this make me sound -- I came in expecting this to be tense and thrilling in the manner of something like Nightcrawler or The Wages of Fear or [insert random Hitchcock], but it didn't strike me like that at all. What actually wound me up was all the masculinity and shouting, which is honestly just too much for me, just as in many of the films that executive producer Martin Scorsese puts his name on. I don't think it's an actual flaw of the movie, I'm just finding that I'm simply too squeamish for this sort of thing; even the swearing kind of got on my nerves after a while. I'm glad I saw it, but it was stressful, and not in the way I honestly hoped!!

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