“Uncut Gems” builds a genre-busting tale of crime and debt and chutzpah around an instantly indelible character named Howard Ratner, absolutely the last person in the world you’d want to play chicken against. He’s a mostly well-to-do New York jeweler whose life is crashing around him; clearly, he’s done a terrible job of leaving well enough alone, preferring instead to leverage every dollar, every interaction, every relationship to place ever-riskier bets. Business is poppin’ at his Midtown jewelry store with the bulletproof buzz-in foyer. He maintains a couple of posh homes (a house for his wife and kids, an apartment in the city his girlfriend has keys to), and he might even have a decent life if he weren’t a ticking time bomb. He’s placed enough bets in enough places that gruff, unpleasant men keep finding him on the street, giving ultimatums that always seem to include an upcoming day of the week.
By the time we meet Howard, his life is past the point of slow-motion train wreck — nope, there’s a bus parked on the crossing, and the conductor keeps flooring it. You know from the trailers that it’s a dark, manic Adam Sandler playing this antihero, seemingly flexing in the face of every danger he comes across. The brothers who directed and wrote the screenplay, Benny and Josh Safdie, bided their time on this film so patiently that they managed to land an unconventional star like Sandler and set him up for Oscar season chatter, enlisting no less a basketball legend than Kevin Garnett to appear as himself, in 2012, who’s captivated by a certain gemstone that our man Howard shows him. KG wants the gem badly enough to offer his championship ring as collateral. Howard, suddenly in possession of a diamond-drizzled Celtics ring the size of a shotglass, decides (of course) to pawn it long enough to place some bets. For the rest of the running time of the film, you’ll experience acute chest pains, dizziness and vicarious shortness of breath.
Sandler’s casting and performance have gotten most of the early attention, for obvious reasons. The mastermind of such cinematic landmarks as “Little Nicky” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” has built a deserved reputation for cashing giant checks for making jokes aimed at third-graders. (And yet, even in this film, the first angle we see of Howard is mid-colonoscopy.) The big exception (until now) was his 2002 starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love,” for which Sandler received his first — and to date, only — Golden Globe nomination. We all knew he could be great when he decided to be.
Sandler inhabits Howard as a ruthless hustler caught in his own prison of missed promises and impossible optimism, and “Uncut Gems” supports him with a bevy of lower-profile, equally surprising little gifts. Julia Fox is the breakout here, as Howard’s employee and half-his-age thot ladyfriend, equal parts his antagonist and his champion. Lakeith Stanfield, quietly the secret ingredient in all your favorite movies, blazes through as a small-timer running game/butting heads with Howard. All the while, Daniel Lopatin’s loopy, dreamy score of choirs and synths gives every moment a texture somewhere between magical realism and a frantic drug trip. And every time Howard hands a guy a fake Rolex to fend off a collector for even a little more time, you feel your guts grind again.
Pile up enough odd and inspired choices, and “Uncut Gems” successfully builds a fully conceived world — plotted with the help of real game footage and results from Kevin Garnett’s 2012 playoff games — while also maintaining something of the fantastic edge required to get inside Howard’s addictions and compulsions. The story hinges on fevers, after all, most of them Howard’s, but Garnett’s instant infatuation with the titular gems moves the action here. You get just enough information to look ahead at this game Howard’s playing, as he tries above all to buy himself hours by selling days, the noose ever-tightening. What you’re left with at the end of it all is more a mood than anything, a sense of the world as both dark and bright at once. In it, every loss is temporary when you can keep saying double or nothing, double or nothing, ’til either your wishes come true or you really are left with nothing.
But you gotta clear that idea out of your mind. That’s not how winners think.