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Best ‘Lice of Life’ movie of 2019: Uncut Gems

The movie poster for "Uncut Gems."
The movie poster for "Uncut Gems." - Image courtesy of Elara Pictures.

By Jim Bloch

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains mild spoilers in a synopsis of the film. Read on at your own risk.

We all enjoy slice of life movies such as Noah Baumbach’s “Francis Ha” (2012), Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008) or Richard Linklater’s magisterial “Boyhood” (2014).

But there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned “lice of life” movie in which the hero is being eaten alive by some sort of addiction. Think of last year’s “A Star is Born,” directed by Bradley Cooper, or Mike Figgis’s “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) or Blake Edwards’s “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962).

In 2019, the best lice of life movie was “Uncut Gems,” directed by Bennie and Josh Safdie and starring Adam Sandler as the gambling-addicted jeweler Howard Ratner. Sandler is so dominant in the film, so compelling with his sleazy goatee, processed hair, luminescent Chiclets teeth, a diamond in each earlobe, his rimless glasses with gold ear pieces, leather coat and constant stream of jive talk that he overwhelms everyone else in the picture, including real-life characters playing themselves — the basketball star Kevin Garnett and the rap artist The Weeknd.

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Sandler’s bravura performance puts the viewer in the heart of the action as loan sharks swarm him from all directions, demanding repayments for loans he has lost gambling, threaten his life, loom four rows back at his daughter’s high school play, in which one scene finds her ironically spitting up gold pieces moments after Sandler can’t come up with a dime, is kidnapped by thugs, stripped naked and stuffed into the trunk of his own Mercedes.

Try explaining that to your wife.

With no clothes but somehow his phone, he calls her and tells her — in the middle of the play — that he’s locked his keys in his trunk and could she come out to the parking lot and open it? Idina Menzel seems stoic and under-used as Dinah Ratner — until she responds to his pleas for another chance.

“You are the most annoying person I have ever met,” she tells him in a quiet, devastating rant. “I hate you.”

The thrill of winning a big bet is for Howard like the greatest orgasm ever and it is the only time Sandler wants sex with his girlfriend, the much younger Julia, played by Julia Fox. Forget about his wife.

At one point, Sandler rags on his girlfriend Julie for staying up all night and partying — she’s in bed with another woman.

“You’re so extra,” Julia says.

The MacGuffin in the movie is a fist-sized chunk of dull-looking rock studded with gumball-sized black opals, which embody “all the colors in the universe” forged 110 million years ago deep underground in Ethiopia and mined by black Jews working in slave-like conditions in the Welo Mine.

Garnett and his throng of friends and hangers-on come through the bullet-proof glass security chamber into Howard’s private jewelry store. Howard shows him the opal-studded rock, worth more than a million dollars, and Garnett is entranced as he studies the kaleidoscopic colors through Howard’s loupe. Garnett is in love. The glass jewelry display case on which he leans explodes under his weight.

“It’s a sign,” KG tells Howard. “I need this.”

“It’s not for sale,” Howard says.

In exchange for KG’s diamond-encrusted 2008 NBA Championship ring, Howard lends KG the black opal — with a promise that it’s to be returned by 9 a.m. Friday morning. Howard immediately pawns KG’s ring for $21,000 and lays the money on a series of complicated bets for that night’s Celtic’s game.

Made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin refers to an object or event that is worthless or irrelevant in itself, but which motivates the action in a film. In “Uncut Gems,” the black opal becomes more and more of a MacGuffin as the movie unfurls.

The trade of black opal for KG’s ring sets in motion the dizzyingly escalating finale where the rock plunges in value to $250,000, then $190,000, then $155,000.

By the end of the movie, the even the appearance of the rock has taken a hit. It looks like a slab of dull cement with busted marbles in it.

Lice of life movies usually don’t end well.

But they often end spectacularly.

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