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On ‘Uncut Gems’ and ‘Marriage Story,’ Two Uniquely New York Movies

One places Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett in the middle of NYC’s diamond district—the other places Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in the middle of a divorce

A24/Netflix/Ringer illustration

No contemporary American filmmakers specialize in bat-out-of-hell propulsion like Josh and Benny Safdie. In their latest film, Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays a New York City jeweler whose aggressive speed-walking is like an extension of his racing, insatiable consciousness; his body is trying to keep up with his brain. An apparently self-made magnate, Sandler’s Howard Ratner careens through Manhattan’s diamond district with a cellphone glued to his ear, and cinematographer Darius Khondji keeps pace, tracking laterally through crowded sidewalks and hovering patiently in the rare moments when the character is at rest. Genuine momentum is a rare commodity in filmmaking, and encountering it can be exhausting or exhilarating: a matter of stamina on both sides of the screen.

Khondji’s photography is just one weapon in an arsenal of assaultive cinematic technique, along with frenetic editing, a stinging synth score, and Sandler’s hoarse, braying line readings, which leap out of the swirling sound mix. The sheer sensory overload of Uncut Gems is not a surprise as far as the Safdies are concerned—not after relentless efforts like 2014’s dizzying addict drama Heaven Knows What or 2017’s sinister, brilliant Good Time, which was yoked to Robert Pattinson’s squirrelly, nocturnal hustler. The latter is one of the best thrillers of recent years, partly because of how smartly the directors used their star, harnessing just enough of his charisma to give an otherwise repulsive character attractive shadings and then letting him disappear into the role.

With Sandler, such self-effacement simply isn’t possible. No matter how skilled an actor he’s become, he can never truly convince us he’s someone else; think of how directly Funny People drew from his persona. Sandler’s willingness to lend his celebrity to a welterweight contender like Uncut Gems is both to his credit and in his favor, since transformative, under-the-radar acting is easily parlayed into award consideration. Gifted with a true box office draw, the Safdies are at once riding high and in a bind: How can they cultivate their typical street-level realism with an icon riding shotgun? So, with a mix of guts and resourcefulness, the film rips a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love playbook and leans into certain Sandlerisms—primarily the idea of a loud, abrasive man-child without a behavioral filter—while placing them in a discombobulating new dramatic and artistic context, like Billy Madison remade as Abel Ferrara’s neo-exploitation classic Bad Lieutenant.

Ferrara’s 1992 film about a hopelessly corrupt—and yet spiritually yearning—NYPD lifer is an obvious influence on Uncut Gems, which updates both its visionary urban squalor and narrative through line of sports betting gone bad. In Bad Lieutenant, the beleaguered title character keeps placing bets on the NLCS, monitoring the Mets’ progress on his car radio in between busts and spiraling into despair as he hears the home team—which he’s picked to lose—rallying in the late innings. Sandler’s Howard, a family man who cuts a slightly less abject figure than Harvey Keitel’s coke-snorting detective and mostly stays on the right side of the law, is an NBA junkie, and as the film opens, he’s generated a plan to integrate his business interests, his gambling, and his fandom. With the help of a freelance broker (Lakeith Stanfield) whose specialty is infiltrating basketball entourages, he dangles a mysterious, seemingly priceless Ethiopian opal in front of Kevin Garnett—the real Kevin Garnett—and offers to lend it to him for free as a good luck charm before an upcoming playoff game; all he asks as collateral is the Big Ticket’s 2008 championship ring.

The excitement of seeing two 21st-century icons acting opposite each other in such a charged metafictional context is real: Watching Sandler and Garnett haggling back and forth in the narrow, glassed-in confines of Howard’s office—a space made all the more claustrophobic by the presence of Garnett’s pals—is funny and bewildering even before the narrative implications of their exchange become clear. One sign of a great thriller is that it contains a moment when you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, and Uncut Gems gets there in the aftermath of Garnett’s departure, when Howard—his ultimate plan known only to himself—takes the ring and, shockingly, puts it in hock, telling his pawn-shop contact that he’ll buy it back by the end of the week. It’s a wild move—the first of many—and the question of whether Howard is a kind of addled chess master thinking five moves ahead or just a risk-taker with a death wish (one that a number of criminal associates would be all too happy to fulfill) remains open for the duration of the movie like an uncauterized wound.

Uncut Gems wouldn’t work if Sandler didn’t pull us into Howard’s compulsions, or if he wasn’t able to work up some sense of sympathy. On one hand, Howard is living the vicarious dream of every beta-male wannabe who dreams of running with alpha dogs; his hilariously tacky, high-tech downtown apartment and young, impressionable mistress (Julia Fox) are decorative signifiers of a revenge-of-the-nerd triumph. But we’re also privy to the swath of destruction he left in his wake, starting with his shattered, former domestic life, the shards of which keep digging in at the most inopportune times—reminders of a different set of responsibilities. The story is set at the intersection of Howard’s separate-but-unequal lives and plays out like a multicar pileup as all parties—including his understandably vengeful, emotionally checked-out wife (Idina Menzel) and various thugs sent by various bookies to collect on various debts—keep running red lights. Howard bears the brunt of these collisions—he’s a punching bag and a crash-test dummy—but remains undaunted; when somebody calls him a “crazy-ass Jew,” it’s taken as an affirmation of a peculiar set of superpowers.

If the smartest movies are ones that know how to conceal their underlying intelligence, Uncut Gems is, like Good Time, deceptively ingenious as a character study. Howard’s lack of tact and carnivalesque transparency make him obnoxious, but he’s also liberated from any sense of pretense about what he wants and what he is; he bargains, borrows, and even steals, but he doesn’t really lie. The Safdies illustrate—in sharp, vivid strokes that sometimes color outside the lines of what audiences may expect from a mainstream movie—how Howard’s behavior exists on a larger continuum of avarice, of which he is by no means the most egregious offender. By setting a story of greed and punishment in the world of high-end jewelry, Uncut Gems drills down to the glittering core of materialism, suggesting it’s as deeply ingrained in the stratas of human character as a stone buried at the bottom of a mine. Even as they prevent the narrative from hurtling off the tracks, the Safdies keep plunging Howard—and the audience—downward, culminating in a final shot that, magically, comes out the other side.

Undoubtedly, Uncut Gems is a New York story: Howard’s Knicks fandom is loudly stated; every extra delivers their dialogue as if they’re auditioning for Midnight Cowboy; and as the clincher, there’s a cameo by the Pope himself, Mike Francesa. There’s a similar sense of civic pride at play in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, whose protagonists—actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her director-slash-husband Charlie (Adam Driver)—find a metaphor for their crumbling relationship in the movement back and forth between New York and L.A. Location isn’t the only factor in their decision to split, but Nicole’s desire to work closer to the television industry, where she’s scored a role in a high-profile pilot, clashes with Charlie’s off-Broadway ensconcement, as well as his almost parodic devotion to the city’s rhythms. The issue is what—and where—is best for their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and an initially amicable conundrum spirals outward and downward into a bruising bicoastal custody battle.

Speculation that aspects of Marriage Story are autobiographical to Baumbach’s split with Jennifer Jason Leigh is unavoidable, and yet that’s not what gives the movie its power. Here, instead of cultivating his typical hyperarticulate cruelty, Baumbach’s made a movie that is, in every way, about love—and specifically how it’s only love that can make you truly mean. Love may have been in the mix in dysfunctional showcases like Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, but only as an abstraction; in the charming Frances Ha, the heightened sweetness was almost satirical. The love in Marriage Story, though, is instantly recognizable and relatable and charged in multiple directions at once: between two parents and the child they adore; between two lovers who don’t like each other anymore.

Structurally, Marriage Story tries to play fair—or have it both ways—by focusing equally on both parties as they lick their wounds, consolidate their assets, and plan their divorce-court strategies. Baumbach’s film is made under the sign of Kramer vs. Kramer, but it’s more magnanimously conceived than that film, which sided with Dustin Hoffman’s struggling single dad. There are shadows of Hoffman’s performance in Driver’s work in Marriage Story, which is his best so far, a marvel of visibly internalized feelings in which every hard swallow can be felt in the back of your own throat.

Charlie’s receipt of a valuable MacArthur Genius Grant establishes his artistic bona fides while mocking his utter haplessness as his life unravels; seated in a posh lawyers’ office tallying up the literal and figurative costs of collapsing his marriage, he doesn’t feel particularly smart. The question of Charlie’s genius and how much bad behavior he’s tried to subsequently justify is one of the places where Marriage Story gets especially thorny, digging with gusto into the myth of the aloof male creative. In an excoriating monologue that is all but begging to be screencapped and meme’d into infinity, Nicole’s cheetah-sleek lawyer (Laura Dern) unleashes on professional and parental double standards in a way that hypothetically demolishes a lot of our sympathy for Charlie—at least until an extended, surreally hilarious set piece involving a court-appointed child “examiner” swings our feelings right back in his direction.

The tonal tug-of-war encoded in Baumbach’s script represents some of his best writing, and the actors—not only Driver and Johansson, but also Dern, and Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as Charlie’s two very different (but equally expensive) legal advisers—tear into their dialogue one withering line at a time. There’s bound to be a lot of discussion of the massive centerpiece argument, which tries to go straight into the emotional-terrorism hall of fame next to John Cassavetes and mostly gets there—the actors go so hard they almost come out of their skin. Yet I was more affected by the movie’s smaller touches, like Nicole’s stage-managed reluctance to serve her husband with divorce papers, or Charlie’s appearance during a Hollywood Hills trick-or-treat trip with Henry as a forlorn, bandage-clad Invisible Man.

More than most of Baumbach’s tightly cloistered comedies, Marriage Story deals with more or less universal emotions, and the fact that they still come through despite the rarefied details of the movie’s showbiz milieu is surprising and gratifying. People are well within their rights to reject this glamorous pantomime of divorce featuring absurdly attractive actors, but what’s the problem if we see parts of ourselves in them? As if to underline this point, Baumbach includes two interludes—one in the middle and one toward the end—in which his characters perform numbers from a beloved, enduring Broadway show whose marital subject matter has of course been carefully chosen yet still seems to belong to them; Charlie and Nicole see themselves in the songs, and since they’re great songs, we do too. That Baumbach uses Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” instead of crafting his own equally ambivalent, affirmative epigram may seem frustrating, but it works because (a) Baumbach’s not alone; and (b) he has good enough taste to be a curator as well as a creator. Either way, what starts out as casual wine-bar karaoke descends into something devastating, before achieving liftoff. It’s a great moment, and Driver, who’s been very good in a lot of movies without ever carrying one in this way, brings the house down.