Walking into the theater to see Uncut Gems, I saw an unusual warning notice sitting on the ticket counter: “STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER contains several sequences with imagery and sustained flashing lights that may affect those who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy or who have other photosensitivities.”
This triggered a whiff of nostalgia for my ten year-old self, back when the notorious Pokemon episode “Dennō Senshi Porygon” took out damn near every epileptic in Japan — in fact, the name has never been translated because the episode was banned from import by every other country on Earth. It also caused me to scoff at the very notion of being taken down by any movie. Twenty-two years after the Pokemon incident, I’m a healthy grown-ass man with excellent blood pressure and no history of motion sickness, let alone seizures. What mere media could possibly put a dent in my iron constitution, I asked myself, with no small amount of self-satisfaction?
An hour after I left that same theater, I found myself gripping my chest and giving serious consideration to the idea of going to Urgent Care for an EKG, since I was pretty sure that watching Uncut Gems caused me to have an arryhthmia.
This was a novel reaction for someone who loves movies so much that I pissed away my chance of a perfectly good liberal arts education to go to film school, who gets paid minimum wage for horrible hours just to play a small part in producing them. I fully grasp that they’re a caveman’s dumb idea of art, trafficking hot people’s sexual charisma into stupidly convenient narratives and daring to equate that with literature; but deep down, I’m a chimp who likes looking at hot people, and damnit if I don’t feel every frame in my bones.
My weepy Irish ass goes looking for excuses to have a good cry, and cry I do, at every schmaltzy orchestral swell and minor triumph, no matter what it is — there are two parts of Legally Blonde that get me every time, I spent my first few hours of Disney+ ownership bawling profusely at Up!, and I can make myself cry on command by thinking of the “Theoden King stands alone” bit from The Two Towers.
Conversely, there is nothing that gets my spazzy inner 10 year-old as amped as a nice, visceral stabbing, or the satisfaction of someone who really needs to die getting theirs: the very thought of Immortan Joe’s face being ripped off makes me grunt involuntarily, and I jumped up and down when Liam Neeson cut Tim Roth’s ribcage in half in Rob Roy. My younger brother punched me (really hard) for grunting too loudly during The Raid: Redemption, since I had already been warned. Repeatedly.
Point being, in all my many years of using the movies as a playground for my notably poor control of my emotions, of all the many profound reactions that the medium has inspired — this is TV, but when Walt let Jane die on Breaking Bad, I screamed “NO!” at the TV for a straight minute — I have never been so racked with tension that I actually hyperventilated.
At least, I hadn’t before I saw Uncut Gems.
I don’t mean I was sniffing air a little too hard while sitting on the edge of my seat. I mean I was sucking in entire lungfuls of air and expelling them within the space of a second, over and over again, for ten straight minutes, while I white-knuckled the armrests. I’ve never had a panic attack, so I’ve never hyperventilated like that for any reason. Nonetheless, there I was, in a godawful front row seat so close to the smallish screen that the picture was skewed and trapezoidal above me, but as far as my adrenal gland was concerned, it was if I had made the film’s batshit-insane climactic bet myself.
This is not a movie about gambling addiction so much as it is a gambling-addiction simulator. The only reason it can work this way is because it’s anchored to one of the most fascinating characters ever committed to celluloid or CCD, Howard Ratner. While I’ve talked the same trash about Adam Sandler that everyone else has for the past 20 years, I’ve waited in joyful hope for the second coming of Barry Egan, maintaining that he could be a genius if he actually tried.
To paraphrase the man’s favorite band: this time, he tried. Oh lord, he tried, the best that he can.
Howard Ratner is both a Daniel-Day-Lewis-esque transformation and a Bill-Murray-esque vector for the actor’s persona and easy charisma. While the film’s premise suggests the worst kind of easy Jewish stereotype, in practice it is a remarkably specific portrait of this remarkably specific Jew, who is every bit as chalkboard-scratchingly annoying as the worst Sandler roles, while being as relentlessly charming and watchable as the man has always been at his best. To say nothing of the heroic (and note-perfect) weight gain, his hair, wardrobe, and affect all personify the combination of tacky gaudiness and apparent expense that define the world Howard lives in.
God help me, I liked the guy. I liked him in the same way his wife must have liked him once, before all the cheating, and all those bookies and loan sharks liked him before they had to chase him down, getting fake watches as payment once he finally couldn’t dodge them anymore. They’re all exhausted, whereas I’m just meeting this guy, and it’s the contrast between those exhausted reactions and this gambling addict’s exuberant denial that makes the film work.
You can feel his past-due financial and social debts being demanded from all corners, from Eric Bogosian’s subtly brilliant fed-up loan shark, to his long-suffering wife (Idina Menzel, single-handedly proving that the oft-maligned “wife” character need never be boring) to the great Lakeith Stanfield’s indifferent-to-embarrassed business partner. And Howard can’t stop himself from taking from one of them to pay the others — in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes, he basically pawns his mistress to cover his marriage, trying to use a break-up he knows to be temporary as an argument for his wife not to leave him.
One of the brilliant conceits is that, for as many crazy decisions are made for him by his gambling addiction, this is not a protagonist-doing-dumb-things-based plot. He makes several decisions that would otherwise have led to success, if he hadn’t long ago burned through the trust, patience, or credit required to carry them out, or if he wasn’t constantly pawning or selling everything he gets his hands on just to get money for his next bet. Even so, the movie uses its own artificiality to make you sincerely believe, as Howard believes, that he’s gonna hit big: movies almost always have happy endings, so you know it’s a lock!
Equally as important to that buy-in, and nearly as captivating as Howard himself, is his mistress and partner in crime, played with aplomb by Julia Fox. I can’t remember seeing a more perfect representation of a messy woman onscreen, particularly of this vintage.
She is with a guy she shouldn’t be with, and wouldn’t be but for her daddy issues. He’s married, too old for her, and a bit too heavy and greasy all around. As both his employee and sometimes domestic partner, she knows better than anyone else how illusory his money is. But in Ms. Fox’s hands, this never feels like a George Costanza or King of Queens situation, where a schlub is arbitrarily paired with unattainable arm candy thanks to his hook-up with the casting director.
Her performance simmers with self-possession and hopeless insecurity in equal measure, flashes of the fearless agency of Ellen Ripley woven into palpable desperation to keep together the closest thing she’s ever known to a family. She defies expectations from her first moment onscreen, eschewing the cheap “old guy dating a girl who’s too young for him” cinematic cliches to show her genuine devotion to the man, no matter how ridiculous it might look to the casual observer (or random people in line outside of a club).
But this film won’t let you be a casual observer. You have to want Howard to win, because it feels like the only way you’ll get any room to breathe, and make the literal heart-pounding stop. But he’s an addict, and no such release is coming. Any profit earned from this vicious cycle is immediately fed back into it. He needs the next score, the next bet, and his refusal to stand still for five minutes, and all the damage it does, culminates in a contender for the greatest climax in the history of cinema.
And as I wrote at the outset, that climax is definitely going to kill someone with a weak heart at some point. It might not be tomorrow, but this a movie bound for revival screenings if I’ve ever seen one, so just give it time… and after this morning’s Oscar nominations, I hope that whomever it is, they’re in the Academy.