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Uncut Gems, 2019

Howard (Adam Sandler) is a precious gems dealer in New York who owes a lot of money due to gambling, including a huge sum to a family member named Arno (Eric Bogosian). As the debt collectors become increasingly aggressive, Howard holds out hopes that he will make a huge profit off of a rare opal he has imported from Ethiopia and hopes to sell at auction. But a series of short-term decisions Howard makes in the days leading up to the auction have the potential to make or break him.

This movie got pretty glowing reviews when it first came out and I consider Good Time to be a pretty masterful mix of comedy, drama, and thriller. I thought that Uncut Gems had a lot of great stuff going for it, but it didn't quite hit me in the same way as the previous film.

To start with the good, the Safdie brothers once again show a really deft hand at creating sequences with a lot of hustle and bustle where little nuances in the interactions between characters can have momentous effect on the plot. There's also lots of handheld camera work and neon colors. Sequences go from gritty reality to cosmic abstraction several times.

The performances are also quite strong. Sandler's Howard is a desperate, sweaty man with just enough charisma and banter that you can believe he had enough going for him to build a business that would attract upscale clientele. Something that the film portrays really well is the fact that Howard will never really "win". You could hand this man a million dollars on a golden platter and a week or a month later he'd be broke and/or in debt again. He is the kind of personality that thrives on risk taking, and sooner or later you just don't survive a certain series of losses.

LaKeith Stanfield makes an impression as an associate of Kevin Garnett who is playing his own games of power and money. (Garnett, it should be said, acquits himself just fine). A real standout for me was Julia Fox as Howard's girlfriend, Julia. While at times I found Julia's attraction to Howard, um, very confusing, Fox brings good energy to her role and ends up being one of the more enjoyable characters. She looks like a young Debi Mazar, and whether she's having a screaming fight with Howard in the street or dodging debt collecting goons, she's welcome every time she's on screen.

I did struggle with the middle act of this film. Howard is on a steady, downward spiral. Every time he might catch a lucky break, something seems to thwart him. But at well over two hours, boy did that middle 40 minutes drag for me. At points I was seriously tempted to fast forward (I resisted, but barely). Frustratingly, I can't pinpoint why it was that I disconnected so much, but I felt my patience with the story plummet and just started to feel frustrated. I can understand on a theory level why we spend so much time on this carousel of little failures with Howard, but I lost my engagement with it. Things pick up again very strongly in the last 35 minutes or so, thank goodness.

Very solid, but I think Good Time is my preferred Safdie brothers film.