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Review: Sandler scores as sleazy jeweler in heart racing 'Uncut Gems'

Adam Sandler plays a compulsive gambler at the end of his rope in the Safdie Brothers' must-see maddening thriller

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A heart-racing, pulse-pounding ride that leaves you feeling winded and gasping for air, "Uncut Gems" has an exhausting, unrelenting energy all its own.

With their 2017 breakthrough feature "Good Time," writer-director team Josh and Benny Safdie showed they could dive into the grimy underworld of crime and create an atmosphere of sleazy electricity. With "Uncut Gems," they transfer that feeling to New York's Diamond District, where Howard Ratner (a possessed Adam Sandler) is spiraling out of control.    

Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems."

Howard is a jeweler whose compulsive gambling habit has turned his life into a series of bets, each raising the stakes slightly higher. He's in deep to some bad people — including his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian) — and in order to get out he needs to continue to up the ante. He's a loser who keeps doubling down as he trudges new depths of rock bottom. 

His home life is a wreck; his wife (Idina Menzel) is ready to leave him, his kids have almost nothing to do with him. He's shacking up with Julia (Julia Fox), one of his employees from the jewelry store, whom he's unsure if he's able to trust. 

Meanwhile, one of his associates, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings NBA All-Star Kevin Garnett into his store, and Howard sells him on a rare stone from Ethiopia. Garnett feels like he needs the stone, and after his first contact with it has a huge game on the court. Howard needs to sell Garnett the stone to pay back his gambling debts. 

The Safdies take these ingredients and bring them to a boil, mixing in the burgeoning career of Toronto R&B sensation The Weeknd (the film is set in 2012, just as he's starting to blow up) and the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, which have never felt more vital.

They mainline it all like a drug, and "Uncut Gems" plays out like a series of highs, each going to greater lengths to top itself, undercut with a feeling of desperation and a ticking clock of inevitability. It's a game where winning just leads to more losing. 

You've never seen Sandler like this before, he's in pure degenerate mode, his life a series of short-lived triumphs followed by crushing, soul-eviscerating disappointments. He's a dead man walking, he knows it, but the glimmer of hope from that one perfect parlay gives him what he needs to keep marching forward. Sandler captures the utter despair of a hustler who's backed into a corner but keeps weaseling his way out, and his performance is magnificent. 

The Safdies populate their world with well-hued, colorful New York characters, giving "Uncut Gems" a feeling of gritty authenticity. It's a breathless journey that captures the exhilaration and the hopelessness of living life on the edge. It's a gamble that pays off, and then some. 

'Uncut Gems'

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use

Running time: 135 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama