On The Block Movie Club Week 3: Uncut Gems

A rare joy in life is enjoying something entirely new. As habit-driven creatures, people tend to fall into routine and do what they find most comfortable, and there is a certain level of enjoyment to that. It’s why watching The Office at any given time or playing Smash Ultimate day in and day out is so appealing and feels so safe, but the experience of finding a brand new hobby or activity that is truly enjoyable is unmatched by any routine. In relation to films, this sensation can be found when watching a movie that is truly unlike anything that the viewer has ever seen in the past. Up until recently, the film that stuck out the most in this situation was Get Out by a fairly wide margin. Sure, thriller/horror movies about being an outsider with seemingly no way to wrangle out of a dangerous situation had been made before, but the masterful mix of race commentary, sci-fi elements, and simple unpredictability of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut made it a watch experience unlike anything that had ever been produced. In this same vein, last week’s OTBMC Movie of the Week, Uncut Gems, found itself successfully being an unexpected and unique experience of tension and enjoyment unlike anything seen before.

First responses to hearing a movie with Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett was going to be coming out in the future were, understandably, varied. The last movie in which Sandler starred and a former NBA big man had a role was Grown Ups 2, so previous attempts were not well-received. However, this wasn’t going to be a normal paid Sandler vacation where he and all his buddies collect a check to hang out for three weeks. The Safdie Brothers had a script and an idea that had incredible potential, all they needed was the right two people to play the two most important roles in the film, and they absolutely crushed it. Sandler as Howard Ratner, a gambling-addicted jewelry dealer in New York City, seems a little far-fetched as an idea, but it is perfect in execution. With more than enough NYC spirit and the acting chops to play a confident man way over his head and under his bookie, Sandler is outstanding in a movie where he is on-screen an enormous amount of time. And how do you match the energy of one of the most famous actors of his generation putting in the performance of a lifetime? Cast one of the most intense athletes (and probably people) of all-time in Kevin Garnett.

For the role of the NBA star that Howard would interact with throughout the story to be at all believable, it was going to have to be someone who could reasonably be seen as crazy enough to believe an opal was bringing them good luck in the middle of a playoff run. Had this role been given to someone like Chris Paul or Dwyane Wade, the movie just doesn’t work. The Safdie Brothers have said that the original person they had in mind for the role was Joel Embiid (with a slightly different timeline than the finished product), but eventually deciding on KG was the correct move. He’s awesome on camera, incredibly intimidating, and if it came out that he had a rock in his locker he essentially worshipped before every game, no one would be surprised. Beyond just the two leads, casting as a whole for this film was spot-on. Lakeith Stanfield is incredible as always, Julia Fox steals every scene she’s in, Idina Menzel is spot-on, even Mike Francesa and Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) are really good in the moments they have. In a script that relies on a lot of dialogue and interaction, the stars shine and the rest of the cast provides excellent performances.

Watching Uncut Gems is an exercise in anxiety control. The entire plot is based around one NBA playoff series that goes to seven, so it’s a maximum of about twelve days from start to finish. In that week and a half-ish time period, Howard’s life has gone from “things aren’t so bad” to “one bad break and I’m going to lose the one thing that is keeping me alive”, so those days were obviously packed with some tension filled moments. Whether it's the first scene with Howard and KG in the jewelry shop, the meeting after the Passover dinner, or when the magnetic locking doors fail with Garnett and his entourage on their way into the store, every moment feels incredibly heavy, which is what makes Howard’s ups and downs over the two weeks feel like such high victories and low defeats. It’s the curse of the gambler over the course of one movie, culminating in watching one game with everything on the line. For sports fans, gamblers, thrill-seekers, or simply just fans of good movies, watching Uncut Gems is an intense and very enjoyable experience.

New week means a new movie, and this week was the first in which our film was selected by an audience poll. In resounding fashion, Akiva Schaffer’s 2007 directorial debut Hot Rod won this week’s vote. As always if you have anything to say about Hot Rod or any other film we’ve watched so far, please let me know. Stay safe out there folks, see you all next week.

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