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Crooked Capitalism Runs Amok In The Wildly Entertaining 'Uncut Gems'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Uncut Gems" arrives on a wave of accolades from organizations including the National Board of Review, which named Adam Sandler the year's best actor, and the New York Film Critics Circle, which gave its Best Director award to the filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. In the movie, Sandler plays a New York jewelry dealer who becomes embroiled in various desperate schemes to get out of debt. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Adam Sandler is known for his juvenile Hollywood comedies, but if you've seen him in movies like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "The Meyerowitz Stories," you know that he can be a superb dramatic actor when given the right material. He's found the right material and then some in "Uncut Gems." Written and directed by the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, this is a tense and jittery throwback to seedy New York crime classics such as "The Gambler" and "Bad Lieutenant" about desperate men spiraling out of control. It's wildly entertaining and utterly excruciating, often at the same time.

Sandler plays an impulsive, fast-talking Jewish businessman named Howard Ratner, who owns a jewelry store in Manhattan's Diamond District. We first meet him while he's having a colonoscopy, the movie's sly way of letting us know we're going to get uncomfortably up close and personal with this guy. It's also one of the few scenes in which the character isn't in motion. The story unfolds over a few chaotic days in the spring of 2012. Much of it takes place in his shop, where Howard peddles a lot of wares like stolen Rolexes and diamond-studded Furby dolls that are almost as flashy and dubious as he is, with his stud earrings, leather jacket and dreadful goatee. But before long, Howard is on the move. He has a sports gambling habit that's cost him dearly, and loan sharks have started turning up at his store to collect. But Howard isn't just addicted to gambling. He's an adrenaline junkie, always ready to shift tactics and up the stakes without warning.

Sandler's unpredictable energy gives the terrific supporting cast plenty to work with. Lakeith Stanfield plays a business associate who helps him hustle clients, while Julia Fox plays Howard's store clerk/girlfriend with whom he's forever fighting and patching things up. The shenanigans never stop. Work doesn't slow down for family occasions like a Passover Seder or his daughter's school play. Howard also has a beyond-fed-up wife, played by Idina Menzel, whom he's about to divorce. But it's typical of his seat-of-the-pants approach and general obliviousness that, on a whim, he asks her if she'll take him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

ADAM SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) OK. Can you just give me another shot?

IDINA MENZEL: (As Dinah) You know what, Howard?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Say yes. What?

MENZEL: (As Dinah) I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met. I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had my way, I would never see you again.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) That's because you're mad. You're mad, and it makes sense. You can punch me if you want.

MENZEL: (As Dinah) Oh, thanks.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Hey.

CHANG: Howard has hatched a typically wild scheme to pay off his debts. He plans to auction off some precious stones, the uncut gems of the title, which we've seen being stolen from an Ethiopian opal mine in the movie's prologue. In one sense, the jewels serve as a classic movie MacGuffin, a much-coveted treasure that changes hands rapidly throughout the story. But unlike most MacGuffins, the jewels are hardly irrelevant to the plot. They function as part of the movie's fierce moral critique, connecting Howard's wheeling-and-dealing antics to an exploitative industry with blood on its hands.

One interested buyer is the Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett, who thinks the gems could be just the good luck charm he needs in his next game. Garnett, who retired from pro basketball in 2016, isn't the only celebrity who gamely plays himself here. There's an amusing yet emotionally harrowing scene at a concert performance by the Canadian pop singer The Weeknd, who also gets briefly drawn into Howard's self-destructive orbit.

As they've shown in their earlier nerve-jangling thrillers like "Heaven Knows What" and "Good Time," the Safdie brothers have a talent for getting under your skin and staying there. They keep their camera closely trained on Howard, never allowing the audience any physical or psychological distance from him. The soundtrack is as abrasive as the camera work, an agitated symphony of radio chatter and raised voices. Howard never slows down, and neither does the movie. At times, you may long for a breather, a moment's respite from the action. But there's something weirdly exhilarating about the movie's sustained intensity, the way it pulls you into this world of crooked capitalism run amuck.

And as cynical as "Uncut Gems" may be, it never feels soulless or devoid of feeling. The story was inspired by crazy tales the Safdies heard from their father, who used to work in the Diamond District. And while the movie isn't exactly nostalgic, its hard-edged realism is laced with affection. That love extends most of all to Howard himself. He may be insufferable, but Sandler makes him brilliantly insufferable. He taps into the rage, recklessness and desperation that have underscored so many of his past comedic roles and puts them so forcefully front and center that you can't take your eyes off him. Howard Ratner may indeed be the most annoying character you've met recently and also the most memorable.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Alex Borstein, who plays Midge Maisel's manager on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," or with Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos" about how Trump bragged about Generals Mattis, McMaster and Kelly and how they each ended up being forced out of the administration or resigning on principle, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "AIN'T THAT THE TRUTH")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "AIN'T THAT THE TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.