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Risky business 

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie consistently make some of the most stressful movies I’ve ever seen. The brothers specialize in gritty yet distinctly romanticized stories of New York City’s seedy underbelly and, from the star-crossed love between the heroin addicts of “Heaven Knows What” to the portrait of desperate brotherly bonds in “Good Time,” their films crackle with an abrasive energy that inevitably reduces me to a bundle of nerves and anxiety every time I watch. What I’m saying is, maybe pop a Xanax before heading to the theater.

click to enlarge Adam Sandler is "Uncut Gems." - PHOTO COURTESY A24
  • PHOTO COURTESY A24
  • Adam Sandler is "Uncut Gems."
Their latest is “Uncut Gems,” a character study by way of a thriller revolving around Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a diamond dealer and gambling addict with a shop in Manhattan’s jewelry district. The film follows Howard over the course of roughly a week, observing his compulsive pattern of paying off his massive gambling debts by making a series of ever-riskier bets. His latest gambits include obtaining the priceless gem of the title — a black opal mined in Ethiopia — as well as an NBA Boston Celtics playoff game. With the gem in his possession, Howard’s sure that all his troubles will be solved. But he’s cursed with an unquenchable desire for more, never filling the hole at the center of his being.

Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel) has long grown tired of his schemes and shenanigans, informing him with work-weary resignation, “I think you’re the most annoying person on the planet.” We’re inclined to agree, watching with increasing agitation as the complicated web Howard weaves forces him into corners he then has to claw his way out of.

He’s also got a mistress on the side, Julia, who’s also an employee at his shop. She’s played by a marvelous actress by the name of Julia Fox, who makes her screen debut here. The first half of the film threatens to predictably turn her character into a villain, but as the movie goes on she becomes something more like its unlikely hero.

The Safdies are so good at creating lived-in worlds, dropping us into the middle of stories that feel like they’re already in progress. Over the course of the film, Howard and Julia go through an epic blowup, followed by attempts to make up, and we get the sense that this is a cycle they go through fairly regularly.

Howard tries to keep all these plates spinning long enough to make the next big score that he’s sure will set him up for life. Of course, we know that even a big win will never be enough; it's inevitable that he's going to turn around and dig himself into an even deeper hole next time. Howard so thrives on chaos that he can’t help tossing himself back into its path the moment things start looking up.

As you might expect, “Uncut Gems” is not an easy watch. It’s a film that operates entirely at a level of clammy panic and desperation, forcing its audience to witness a person make all the wrong decisions and being powerless to stop it.

But thanks to Sandler, Howard has a strange charisma, which explains why the people around him are so willing to give him yet another chance, until they’re decidedly not. It’s a good performance — one of the actor’s very best — while still fitting within what we’ve seen of Sandler’s range over the years.

The actor’s most associated with his mindless Happy Madison comedies, but when the right director can harness his manic energy and point it in the right direction, it can result in something special. The Safdies have stated that they spent years pursuing him for the part, and they were right to fight to get him. He makes Howard’s obnoxiousness oddly moving, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role.

The frenetic editing (credited to Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie) constantly propels us forward, building an unstoppable momentum as it hurls us headlong into chaos. The Safdie’s are helped by the cacophonous sound design, bombarding us with incessant cross-talk and overlapping dialogue.

Alongside Daniel Lopatin’s propulsive electronic score, the dialogue is often sensory overload, putting us in the headspace of the film’s shifty characters. The effect is as excruciating as it is strangely exhilarating. The characters in “Uncut Gems” are constantly shouting at each other. Which is understandable because, well, how else are they going to get themselves heard above all that noise?

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