*. I don’t see the point of the opening shots in the mining camp in Ethiopia. This movie isn’t Babel, showing how the world is somehow all personally connected on various levels. In fact, I think I like the idea of Howard (Howie) Ratner (Adam Sandler) not knowing where the black opal is from. It just comes to him in the belly of a fish! We feel like we’re in a story as old as Herodotus.
*. But then we do get a nice transfer from the interior structure of the gem to the inside of Howie’s guts as we watch his colonoscopy on video. In passing, I wonder why so many doctors/health care professionals think people want to see these videos. Perhaps some people do. I sure as hell don’t. But at the dentist they’re always asking me to look at movies they’ve made of the inside of my mouth. I always try to politely say I’m not interested. And I have a friend who was given the video results of their colonoscopy on a DVD! Why? This makes no sense to me. I’m not a dentist or a doctor. What use could I make of this information? And aside from that, it’s disgusting.
*. Digression over, and back to Howie getting his check-up. I think this is a great fit with the film’s theme. Howie is a gambling addict in a very big way, and isn’t cancer (which is what he’s being tested for) the ultimate spin of the roulette wheel? Cancer comes in many different forms, and can be the result of hereditary or lifestyle factors, but I’ve heard that some two-thirds of all cancers are the result of random genetic mutation. So it’s a crapshoot. Life is a bet you have to make. Is going to the doctor for a check-up all that different from laying money on a basketball game?
*. There’s also a connection, a little more strained but still operational, between the colon and Howie’s appetites. This is a guy who wants too much. And like a lot of people with big appetites, this can lead to health complications. Remember that he takes the opal out of a fish’s belly. Cancer is like the Stuff, you have to ask if you’re eating it or if it’s eating you.
*. Sandler got a lot of praise for playing Howie, and I think it’s deserved in that he gives us a jerk who is not entirely unsympathetic. On the one hand he’s a mask: a professional hustler hidden behind sunglasses and a rictus grin. But there’s a real sadness and sense of waste in his addiction, even if we don’t like the guy. Obviously he’s the author of his own destruction, and the movie feels a lot faster than its running time because of the accelerating catastrophe of his unraveling.
*. I don’t know anything about the jewelry business but I wondered how plausible all of the stuff about the opal being passed around was. Lakeith Stanfield’s Demany in particular struck me as someone I wouldn’t want to do business with at all, seeming to have no sense of responsibility whatsoever. And yet Howie puts his fate entirely in Demany’s hands.
*. Two celebs in the cast playing themselves. Kevin Garnett is credible. His best scene has him simply playing blank to Howie’s ranting about how they’re both the same, being players in some cosmic game. I got the sense that he wasn’t buying any of it. The Weeknd subplot, however, I could have done without. I didn’t see where it had much to do with the main story and the scene in the nightclub was routine and pointless.
*. Apparently Julia Fox is a celebrity as well, though she’s not playing herself. Her Wikipedia page refers to her as a “socialite,” and gives this as her first movie role. I didn’t know what “socialite” meant. She has worked as a clothes designer and a model. I thought she performed well, but her character also struck me as incredible. My guess is that she’s going to run off with the money at the end. Tattoos can be removed.
*. The electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) works surprisingly well. Perhaps because it seems so discordant. Or maybe this is the soundtrack for such a milieu. I only walked through the jewelry district once, and that was many years ago.
*. Nicely handled throughout by the writer-director brother team of Josh and Benny Safdie. The plot has a lot of freaky elements whipped at us at high speed, which helps make up for the fact that it’s a pretty simple story of self-destruction that we’ve seen before.
*. Underneath it all is that sense I mentioned of life being a game. Though it’s a game that’s rigged in ways we can’t know. The thing is, Howie should be a winner. His tests for colon cancer come back clean. He wins his first big bet, against huge odds, and then his second for an even bigger stake. He’s got a rich wife, a couple of kids, and (at least) a couple of beautiful lovers. And yet it’s clear that he’s also a total loser. Losing is his fate, something he can’t escape no matter what. All the bad things in life, just like all of the good things, are so unfair.