This jolt of pure cinematic adrenaline affirmed directors Josh and Benny Safdie as heirs to the gritty, heightened realism of Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. Adam Sandler delivers an almost maniacally embodied performance as Howard Ratner, a fast-talking New York jeweler in relentless pursuit of the next big score. When he comes into possession of a rare opal, it seems Howard’s ship has finally come in—as long as he can stay one step ahead of a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates him, a mistress (Julia Fox) who can’t quit him, and a frenzy of loan sharks and hit men closing in on him. Wrapping a vivid look at the old-school Jewish world of Manhattan’s Diamond District within a kinetic thriller, Uncut Gems gives us one of the great characters in modern cinema: a tragic hero of competing compulsions on a shoot-the-moon quest to transcend his destiny.
The Criterion Collection presents Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems on Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc. The production was shot on film and the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. The Blu-ray edition is being released alongside a combo 4K UHD/standard Blu-ray edition. I am working off of the Blu-ray found in that edition. Outside of the lack of a 4K UHD in this edition the releases are otherwise the same.
It's a newer film, released in 2019, so to the surprise of probably no one the presentation ends up looking very good, though with a few spotty aspects. As a whole the presentation looks splendid: it’s sharp and crisp, every details beautifully rendered, and that goes down to the grain, which mostly looks good. Black levels are very deep and inky, the film loaded with many dark sequences. Thankfully, shadow details don’t get eaten up and there is great depth all throughout. Even a nighttime scene in a car with very little light manages to show some impressive range and detail. Colours also pop nicely, whether it be in Howard’s (Adam Sandler) gaudy showroom or a nightclub scene midway through, where the dance floor is blasted with a black light. This creates an intense “blue” look and the blue is rendered very well, while an orange sweater worn by LaKeith Stanfield in the same scene manages to glow beautifully. Intense reds make their way into the film, as do greens and violets from the various gems. Lens filters used throughout the film also add some nice pops here and there.
Damage isn’t an issue as one would hope for a film only a couple of years old, and the encode is fine, though it has a couple of issues. As I mentioned, grain is rendered mostly well, but there are a few noisy sequences where grain can have a digital look, getting pretty bad in the nightclub scene where blocky patterns sneak into the blacks around those intense blues. Most of the film looks fine, but that sequence does stick out.
All around, though, it’s a nice high-definition presentation and captures the film’s frantic and intense imagery mostly without a hitch.
The film is accompanied by a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which downscales to a Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 surround soundtrack. My current set-up is still a 5.1.2 configuration, the 2 Atmos speakers positioned in the front.
The film has an intense visual style and an audio presentation to match, and it makes great use of the Atmos soundfield. The film is loud, and the mix is really all over the place: there’s a lot of yelling (a lot) with busy background effects and then an 80’s influenced synthesizer score by Daniel Lopatin that just seems to float all around the viewer while the lower frequency effectively rocks things where needed. The LFE also gets some nice subtle use as well. Impressively (!) all of this manages to be clear, even when characters are talking (or screaming) over one another, and nothing really seems to cancel anything else out.
The mix moves beautifully between the speakers, whether it be background effects, voices, or the music, and there’s constant movement. The Atmos effects also manage to lift things nicely, whether it be street noise or the score. Where everything really comes together, though, is in the mid-section club scene where The Weeknd performs. On top of the effective bass the music really fills out the environment perfectly, placing you in the middle of it.
The Atmos presentation is not as impressive as what Criterion’s edition for Alfonso Cauron’s Roma offered (and that one is still reference for me), but it’s still damn good and another strong example of it.
With the film’s critical acclaim, decent box office, and the fact Sandler stars in it, I was completely shocked to see Lions Gate’s own release for the film was almost barebones, featuring only one supplement, a standard (though decent for what it is) 30-minute making-of called Money on the Street: The Making of Uncut Gems, which also appears here. The documentary is standard studio produced fare, but features interviews with many of the cast members, including Sandler, and, to its credit, it does an okay job covering the film’s lengthy production. Still, it leaves one wanting.
Thankfully, Criterion has corrected that slight, even managing to include an audio commentary recorded in 2019 (though not used by Lions Gate) and featuring the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear-McClard, and writer/editor Ronald Bronstein. It’s a packed track, the four (two brothers primarily) touching on just about every little facet of the film, whether it be from finding a “clean colon” for the opening colonoscopy sequence to getting the look of the central jewel shop. They also talk about a number of the “happy little accidents” along the way, like how they came to find the orange sweater for Lakeith Stanfield in the blacklight club sequence. It’s also fun listening to them point out the various locals of the diamond district that ended up being cast in the film (right down to the FedEx delivery guy, the most trusted delivery guy in the area), but the track is most interesting when they talk about the development of the script. The two directors had been trying to get the film made for years, even contacting Adam Sandler well before, so the script, which depended on a specific player having a particularly good season, had to be modified constantly to match the period. They also had to find the right player that had the right kind of season but could also act to a degree, and it sounds like they completely lucked out on landing Kevin Garnett, who even got to share his own input (he apparently got to pick the reason why his character would want the gem that drives the story). Humourously, as the film comes closer to the conclusion, and the tension is ramping up, the track does go silent more often as the four seem to just get sucked into the film, but up until that point it’s an incredibly energetic, informative, and entertaining filmmaker commentary.
Criterion has also gone out of their way to record a number of new interviews with members of the film crew. The best is probably the 14-minute one with costume designer Miyako Bellizzi, who first offers a bit of background around her work before walking us through a few outfits worn in the film, primarily by Sandler and Idina Menzel. She explains the thought process she put into every little detail to further expand on the characters, from the dated aspects of some of Sandler’s clothing (based on 2012, when the film takes place, of course) to show how out of touch his character is with “being cool” to design decisions that show how the character has absolutely no taste. She even focuses on some of the little details that didn’t end up making it into the film.
That level of detail carries on through the film’s production design, which is covered in an interview with Sam Lisenco. Lisenco, for 14-minutes, gives a similar level of detail around the decisions that went into the various settings, making use of actual locations and soundstages. He talks about the construction of the storefront and getting the right kind of look, as though Howard had been constantly updating the store with minimal funds through the years (as though you could see the different periods as you moved through it) and how the back office had to look as sad as possible. Director of photography Darius Khondji spends his 14-minutes talking about his excitement at being involved in the production before going over some of the more difficult sequences, like the beating in the car and the club sequence.
Casting director Jennifer Venditti then pops up for 16-minutes to talk about how she approaches casting. Having been fascinated by “characters” all her life, she shares a number of photographs of people she has taken through the years, people that just look interesting. This approach led her to finding one of the standout newcomers in the film, Keith William Richards, who plays one of Eric Bogosian’s hired goons. To accompany this, Criterion includes audition footage featuring Richards and a few other locals who were cast in the film, including Andrea Linsey and the brothers, Mitchell and Stewart Wenig. Richards (who apparently became buds with Bogosian following a rough start) is quite a bit of fun to watch.
Following that is a discussion about the film’s soundtrack with composer Daniel Lopatin, with director Josh Safdie there as well, recorded in 2020. Running 18-minutes he goes over capturing an 80’s synth vibe (the 80’s comes up quite a bit during the supplements, not a surprise considering the film’s sound and visuals), and then provides some samples while explaining his reasoning for some of his choices. For example, to accompany the big confrontation between Howard and Julia (Julia Fox) after the night club sequence (the piece appropriately titled “Fuck You, Howard!”) Lopatin incorporated Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 to give a moment of triumph to the Julia character. This segment starts out a little dry and covers the expected bases, but it’s worth sticking out once he starts deconstructing the score in more detail.
The disc also features three extended scenes, running about 12-minutes in total. There’s an extended scene in the back office during the initial store sequence, where Menzel shows up and Richards gets more screentime, Richards getting an extended bit that allows him to explain what he’s going to do to Howard if he doesn’t pay up (this was also in his audition footage). There’s also an added hallway confrontation between Howard and Julia’s friends (which is cringey awkward and almost a shame it was cut) followed by the full performance by The Weeknd at the night club.
A 3-minute screen test featuring Sandler and Fox is also here, and it can sort of be counted as a deleted scene, as Sandler’s character is helping his mistress pick out a dress. I’m not sure if the dialogue is scripted or improvised, but the two brilliantly play off of each other. If this played in any way in getting Fox cast it’s easy to see why.
The remaining features are all shorts or videos. The disc first features the in-film YouTube clip around the gem miners, the one Howard shows off, entitled The Plight of the Ethiopian Jews, running just over a minute. There’s a 21-minute short film called Question & Answer, which appears to be simply a Q&A piece for Uncut Gems between the Safdies and Sandler at a diner (where Jason Bateman and comedy writer Megan Amram just happen to be), set up like a hidden camera prank; the Safdies explain right off Sandler doesn’t like doing this sort of thing so they’re tricking him into doing it. It’s clearly staged, but it’s a more interesting way to deliver what is essentially a discussion about the film. The 7-minute Goldman v Silverman then features Sandler and Benny Safdie playing competing street performers who get into a bit of brawl in front of what appears to be an unsuspecting audience. In other features the Safdies talk about their early short film work and I assume this represents the type of material they put out.
The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer, followed by what is called the Elara trailer. This trailer runs 30-seconds and looks to come from a video source, replicating a short 80’s promotional spot that usually opened VHS tapes, completing the 80’s vibe that permeates the film and this release in general.
One of the cleverer additions, though, is the included booklet. The 44-page booklet is gloss-finished and replicates a gem catalogue, one that Howard would probably put out for his business, complete with an order form in the middle. On top of an essay on the film by J. Hoberman, the booklet features a couple of other interesting additions, including a transcription of a conversation between the editorial staff of Jewish Currents magazine, who discuss what the film is saying about current Jewish identity. You’ll also find a timeline of the film’s production, from initial concept to the release of Criterion’s 4K UHD, and, to complete the catalogue feel, there are endless photos of the tacky jewelry Howard would sell, along with photos of Sandler, in character, with several celebrities. There’s also a final photo of Howard with his “happy” family. It’s a fun and well-designed inclusion.
And that closes everything off! I’m not terribly surprised to see a lack in academic material (though the booklet does do a solid job covering that ground), yet the supplements are still all quite engaging, informative, and even fun. An enormous upgrade of Lions Gate’s previous release.
This stacked special edition is packed with some engaging and informative features that fans of the film should love working their way through.