Is it possible for a movie to be good when you don’t enjoy any of it? Movie goers butt up against this question in many forms, from people asking them why anyone would pay to be scared in a horror flick, or when they unglue themselves from their seat after an intense war movie. But the question took on new complexity for me after watching Uncut Gems.
The movie is an audio-visual stress knot. The first scene where Sandler appears, playing Howard Ratner, felt like being shoved and locked into a small box, a feeling that will be useful to draw from as people get trapped in tight spaces throughout the rest of the film.
The music that highlights the visual panorama that bridges Ethiopia (where the first scene takes place) and New York (where the rest of the movie takes place) is loud, bold, and demanding. Fine for a transition between two stories, but it becomes overwhelming as Howard Ratner tries to navigate is over-complex and dysfunctional life on screen.
Everyone demands Howard’s attention, and he fully commits it to no one. Crammed in the close confines of his jewelry store are six people too many, causing interweaving storylines for our inept main character to handle. Howard needs to pay the heavies who are there to collect a debt, he needs to answer the phone, he needs to help a costumer, he needs to stop a fight between KG’s bodyguards and the heavies, he needs to entertain KG, he needs to make sure KG’s earrings get cleaned, he collects a package he had been waiting for for over a year, and ultimately gets it taken from him by KG, and thus the story begins. Afterwards, I was begging for it all to stop, and yet, I was committed to seeing how it would all be resolved.
From that point the plot never stops growing. It becomes an unwieldy beast pressing forward needlessly and with no regard for the well-being of its characters or viewers. The simplest stuff becomes immeasurably more complicated in Howard’s incapable hands. And every joy and ray of hope is snatched from his grasp.
My stress rose as his did. I felt the anxiety as he couldn’t get the opal back from KG, and I lost it when that damn door wouldn’t buzz open to allow KG to finally return the stone. I felt anxiety in the auction room with each delayed raising of a paddle and in the closing scene as they watched the Celtics game, hoping to hit the massive parlay. I never relaxed.
But can I say it was a good movie? I guess I can from the perspective that good films make the audience feel empathy for its characters. But Uncut Gems had a callous disregard for the catharsis of that empathy- shooting it right in the cheekbone. There were no moments for the sake of humor, no beautiful scene that makes everything worthwhile, no tender moment, no lesson learned for viewers to walk away with as if they had a precious gem. There was no resolution to the massive snowball of conflicts that Howard was trying to solve.
So what do I have? A collection of powerful scenes, great acting, a terrific story- all the components of a great movie. But why would I ever put myself through it again?
Uncut Gems rides the line of enjoyment as close as any film I’ve seen. I don’t know if I think it’s a good movie. I just know it did a really good job at whatever it was trying to do to the viewers. Heck, maybe that’s what a great movie is.
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