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Uncut Gems - an opal in the rough

Uncut Gems, which should have been titled High Anxiety, is the perfect antidote for you if you suffer from hypo-tension - your blood pressure is guaranteed to skyrocket. There is nary a moment in its 2 hr 15 min running time when you are not yourself feeling the hyperventilation and adrenaline pumping fight-or-flight rush of its protagonist. It released in theaters in December last year and has now made its way to Netflix.

Adam Sandler, in one of his best roles ever, plays Howard Ratner, a Jewish (what else) jewelry shop owner in New York City's Diamond District. This is not the sophomoric, awkward body language with some kind of speech impediment Sandler of Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy (1998) fame. Along with his usual gang of similar loser guys played by David Spade, Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson, whether in his many collaborations with Drew Barrymore in movies like The Wedding Singer (1998), 50 First Dates (2004), and Blended (2014) - small bit of trivia, South African fast bowler Dale Steyn makes a cameo appearance in Blended - or with Jennifer Aniston in Just Go with It (2011) or Murder Mystery (2019), and countless other movies, he has played an often laugh out loud hilarious and simultaneously cringe-worthy variation of the same. You either love that Sandler or hate him, it's unequivocal. This is Sandler more in the dramatic vein of Spanglish (2004) or The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), but here he is a cut above those by far. This is Sandler as a hustler, a sports fanatic and a gambling addict. Howard is not a like-able character by any stretch, he is quite a scumbag actually in his personal and professional life. Slowly and inexorably however, you get sucked into his roller coaster ride, and as he skips from one impending disaster to the next, you begin to root for his success, hesitatingly at first and then wholeheartedly by the time of the pulse-pounding climax.

Although the movie is fiction, there are a couple of real people, like NBA star Kevin Garnett and music star The Weeknd, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and the climax is set around the actual 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals between Garnett's Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, with every tip off, point and rebound from reality. The predominantly real-life Jewish cast includes singer Idina Menzel, famous for her gut-busting song Let it Go from Frozen (2013), who plays Howard's harried wife Dinah, Judd Hirsch is Howard's father-in-law Gooey, and Eric Bogosian, whom you probably remember as the light-eyed villain in the Steven Seagal flick Under Siege 2 (1995), plays his brother-in-law Arno. Lakieth Stanfield, who was quietly creepy as one of the party guests in Jordan Peele's superb anti-racism horror movie Get Out (2017), plays Howard's jugaadu business partner Demany who gets Kevin Garnett to him as a client. Julia Fox as Howard's malleable mistress makes a nice debut. The rest of the ensemble cast, especially Arno's henchmen, ably support the atmosphere of mayhem.

Uncut Gems and the character of Howard Ratner is the personification of the line from Sir Walter Scott's 19th Century poem, Marmion, which was often quoted in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse - "Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!". The blind faith in luck that only a gambling addict can rationalize in their mind with absolute certainty, the superstitions that guide highly competent sportsmen who should have no reason to doubt their capability but do, and conversely the blind faith that a sports fanatic has in their favorite team or sportsman despite all evidence to the contrary (talk to any Chicago Cubs fan in the 108 years before 2016), leads to the layer upon layer of lies and deceit he builds like an intricate game of Jenga or three-dimensional chess. It starts out rough like its eponymous MacGuffin, the huge opal found by Ethiopian Jews in a mine in Africa, but by the end Uncut Gems is a polished diamond.

June 5, 2020

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