Let me take a moment to explain about anxiety. Imagine for a moment your brain is not housed inside a head, and is instead housed inside a beehive, where the bees tend to hold a lot of raves and shout your biggest failings to you at all hours of the day. That is what anxiety feels like, to me at least.
I bring this up because Uncut Gems is essentially that, a two-hour anxiety attack which a lot of people seem to have enjoyed immensely, and to which I couldn’t really invest.
But we get ahead of ourselves, let’s lay some groundwork shall we?
Uncut Gems is the new film from the Safdie brothers, the guys responsible for Good Time, the 2017 crime caper that helped show the world how far Robert Pattinson has come since he was a sparkly vampire with no personality.
It focuses on a jewellery dealer, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) who suffers with a crippling gambling addiction which has left him several thousands of dollars in debt; through a number of contrivances he ends up in possession of a very valuable gem which could solve all his problems, but in reality they make them all so much worse.
There was an overwhelming feeling present in both this film and Good Time, and that is pressure. The audience is made to feel under pressure as much as the main characters. This can be achieved by characterisation, and the choices characters make, as well as with several filmmaking techniques, such as multiple close-ups and jerker camera movement. In this case, it uses all of the above, it has a hyper-realistic, yet fantastical feel to the way it’s filmed that, at times, made my teeth itch. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, but imagine you’re trapped in a rickety elevator with the characters, and that’s roughly the feeling of nausea it causes.
Whereas this has in the past immersed me in films, as long as I’m feeling something then I know the film is working on some level, but I just felt very detached from this film, I found it very difficult to invest in the characters and all I was left with was the anxious feeling of knowing something terrible is about to happen, as well as all the ‘head full of bees’ business I alluded to in the opening paragraph, which occurs whenever there’s a dialogue heavy scene, as all the characters talk over each other and it makes it difficult to focus on one thing.
Maybe the film is doing its job too well in this case, maybe this was the intended outcome, in which case bully for the directors for achieving their vision, but it doesn’t mean I’m entertained, which is what, I remind you, films are for.
As I said, I found the characters difficult to like and empathise with. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very well acted, Sandler in particular is a revelation, and a million miles away from his comedic nadir, but his character is an arse, and not even a likeable arse, as some characters are. He’s a volatile mess of a character who shouts at his problems in the hope they’ll go away, rather than face up to them. Maybe my main frustration is that you want him to do the sensible and blatantly obvious thing to improve his life, but he’s so set on self-destruction that he carries on down his path of lying and gambling, until even his wife says she can’t stand to look at him.
This doesn’t make him sympathetic, it makes him frustrating, and if you tell me that’s the point, I’ll tell you to stop being so pretentious.
A film that actively makes me anxious could be, and has been, a positive thing. So long as it has a compelling narrative with characters we can connect with, and while this film has several things that really make me want to like it (its leading performance and cinematography for example) it’s abrasiveness and obtuseness that makes it difficult for me to invest.
Maybe it’s just me and I’ve missed the point, there were aspects I enjoyed about it, despite my comparisons to bees and their proximity to my brain, I like the dialogue, it feels natural and fresh, even if it is occasionally confusing. Then there’s Sandler, who is sensational, something I never thought I’d say again, but it just doesn’t come together well for me, I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure others will get more out of it than I will, but I couldn’t get behind the characters, and as a result the film leaves me cold.
Still, as a film it is more worth your time than the usual mainstream fare, and there are glimpses of greatness shimmering away like the titular gems, it just feels like there’s too much rock covering the diamonds.