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Uncut Gems: Decadence Incarnate

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Adam Sandler. It’s a minor miracle, that after all the atrocious comedies he’s made, he would allow filmmakers, the Safdie Brothers, to mold him in such a way to utilize his strengths as a “bad actor” for dramatic storytelling purposes. Sandler is the cornerstone of this story about a jewelry dealer digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole that seems near impossible to climb out of. The Safdie brothers’ kinetic and gritty storytelling make for quite a gripping experience.

“Uncut Gems” is great cinema, and great cinema isn’t always enjoyable; sometimes it’s just necessary. The necessary character arcs and narrative turns can be hard to watch. As much as one may cringe at Adam Sandler’s comedic performances, his performance here is just as cringey, only this time, it is very intentional and very effective at getting viewers to pay attention.

Sandler has always embodied the underdog. That’s something he isn’t afraid to utilize in order to embellish his character and make the audience pity him; unlike other actors he isn’t afraid to embarrass himself. His character, Howard, rarely learns from his mistakes and only shows one fleeting moment of recognition and remorse in the entire film. His arc brings to mind the classic play “Death of a Salesman” where a failing father slowly loses his grasp on sanity as he grows more and more ignorant of the world he lives in.

The writing and narrative of “Uncut Gems” is fascinating and soaked in original style. There is seemingly no real end goal for the characters, at least at the start of the film, and this can be off-putting for some individuals. A lot of “Uncut Gems”’s appreciation value may require a very specific taste.

There is no major character development and the film starts to drag its pace once it’s obvious there is no traditional act structure. The story and its character arcs meander in and out of befuddling situations (it could be argued this mirrors reality) until tangible stakes are introduced in the last twenty minutes.

All of this could have been helped by showing the audience a clearer goal for the characters to accomplish and by centering Howard’s relationship with his family closer to the heart of the film. The story wants viewers to know just how much Howard is liked by people, but never goes far enough into giving viewers a reason as to why.

Characters are always talking over each other, and most of them are self-centered and antagonistic. The film abounds with intense close ups, deep colors, and a score that goes all over the place, from bombastic synth to pulsating choral, from completely drowning a scene out to placing a scene in utter, awkward silence. The narrative is so drenched in greed, dishonesty, lust, brutality, and debauchery, it becomes decadence incarnate. This film is uncomfortable.

But, if audiences can get over that, it is likely they will take something away from this film. Howard represents the obsessive, shameful part inside of everyone. He forces internal questioning. The film also uses plot elements to ask questions about material worth vs. self-worth. The special gem Howard is trying to sell never amounts to much economic worth. The value of the rock isn’t in money; it’s spiritual, and anyone placing monetary value on it, or any other aspects of one’s life, will justly end up empty-handed.

While this film has its slow stretches, its vibrant, saturated style consistently entices viewers into Howard’s downward spiral of well-meaning, but ultimately, degenerating obsession. The final sequence of this film becomes extremely tense, accentuated by rapid pacing and impeccable editing. It ends on a memorable note, whereupon viewers can decide if style and a thematic backbone saved the final product, or if the unbalanced structure and character wheel-spinning, coupled with a lower enjoyment factor, prove to be too unpalatable.

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