Uncut Gems is chaotic, and I mean that in the best possible way. Most of the dialogue is delivered in a vocal range somewhere between a yell and a bellow. There’s constant sound, and noise, and sparkly gems to catch your eye. And the people provide no relief from the cacophony for the senses. Adam Sandler’s turn as Howard Ratner, a high-end jewelry dealer in New York City’s diamond district with a gambling addiction who’s equal parts sleaze and charm, has been praised as a career-best, while newcomer Julia Fox and NBA star Kevin Garnett have earned raves for their feature debuts.
Menzel’s role as Dinah, Howard’s long-suffering wife, isn’t the most flashy of the bunch, nor does she get the most screen time. Still, her scenes are unforgettable. In Howard’s turbulent, messy existence, Dinah’s word is law. She’s the mother of his two children, the one only one willing to call him on his bullshit. Whether she’s ordering him to turn off the basketball game he’s been glued to and put his son to bed — ”Now!” — or squeezing into her bat mitzvah dress after a Passover Seder meal just to prove she can, Dinah will not be ignored.
“She’s a woman that’s sort of the truth serum of the film,” Menzel told Refinery29 about her character in an interview. “She’s the voice for how the audience feels as they’re going through this roller-coaster ride.”
Josh and Benny Safdie are known for their unconventional and creative casting, often mixing in non-actors with their professional performers to really nail a vibe. Uncut Gems is no exception: The movie’s particular brand of stressful genius comes in no small part from its ingeniously assembled players. Watching Menzel spit out lines like, “I think you must be the most annoying man alive” before she open-mouth laughs in Howard’s face is exhilarating, partly because of her history as Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked, and Queen Elsa. We’ve grown used to seeing her in wholesome, family-friendly fare. This is...not that.
With Dinah, she takes a character who could easily have veered into stereotype — Long Island Jewish mom who can stop the conversation with a single glare — and gives her depth and complexity. “We talked about not playing a victim, and that you could fall into the trap of playing just a bitchy wife who’s pissed and very one-dimensional,” Menzel said.
The Safdies reportedly gave their actors pages and pages of backstory for each character, and Menzel filled in the gaps with her own experience. “It’s based on some parts of me,” she said, “And lots of women that I grew up around in my life out on Long Island. It wasn’t such a stretch, let’s put it that way.”
Dinah’s got good reasons to be mad at her husband. Her relationship with Howard is on its last legs — he’s broken too many promises, not least of which his vow to be faithful. (Finding him naked in the trunk of a car midway through their daughter’s play probably didn’t help put him back into her good graces.) But what’s compelling is that beneath that vitriol, we catch glimpses of the life these two have built together. Once again, Howard is gambling with high stakes.
“To feel such strong negative emotions towards someone you have to really strongly love them I think,” Menzel said. ‘She loved the dreamer in him, and that was something that she adored for a long time. But that got tired everytime she was disappointed, and the dream didn’t come true. His desire to be a winner in life is so potent and really, wanting to be a winner is wanting to be loved at any cost. And she just loses him to that.”
Though Menzel will continue to sing, and play the kinds of larger-than-life fantasy ladies we’ve come to know her for — she’s reportedly in talks to play the evil stepmother in Kay Cannon’s Cinderella remake alongside Camila Cabello — this experience has made her want to pursue “grittier” projects. “I really appreciate when people hire me because they think I’m a good performer,” she said. “It’s not just about the notes that I sing. It’s what I bring as a person and a human being. I feel so grateful when I’m recognized in that way.”
Similarly, she hopes audiences will be able to see past Sandler’s comedy persona and recognize his dramatic work. “I believe that great comedians are our most courageous artists, and they don’t get the credit that they deserve. People are surprised that they have such a great acting performance. I don’t find it surprising at all. They’re so willing to be fearless and vulnerable.”
With minutes left in our conversation, I had to ask about the scene where Dinah tries on her bat mitzvah dress, surrounded by her daughter, mother, and aunts. It’s an encapsulation of her character’s need for control over her own existence, but also a very relatable thing that Jewish women do for some reason. (For the record, I do not fit into mine.) Was that in the script, or did she add that in?
‘It was totally in the script,” she said. “We tried on a bunch of really fun ‘80s pink taffeta dresses, and it didn’t fit me at all. It could barely close in the back. But I can definitely relate to that idea.”