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Film Review: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems (2019; Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is hopelessly addicted to the hustle. He owns and operates an exclusive jewelry shop in the Diamond District of New York City, and its profits allow Ratner to live in comfort and luxury with his wife and three kids outside the city. But Howard cannot enjoy his success for the overmastering desire to achieve more success, to hit it big and bigger, to win. This restless pursuit of more and more fractures his marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel), who is planning to divorce him over his tumultuous affair with his shopgirl and mistress Julia (Julia Fox). It gets him in hot water with his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose enforcers (Keith William Richards and Tommy Kominik) pursue the forever dissembling Howard for an unpaid debt. And it drives him towards an elaborate transaction involving a rare black opal from an Ethiopian mine that he hopes to auction off for millions, if he can only get it back from the NBA megastar (Kevin Garnett, playing himself) whose eye it has irrevocably caught.

Uncut Gems is the sixth film from Josh and Benny Safdie, the other Jewish-American filmmaking brothers, who moved out of ear-to-the-ground independent film circles with Good Time in 2017, which, though I’ve yet to see it, is apparently one of the key cinematic texts in Robert Pattison’s transformation from much-mocked vampiric teen idol to serious art-film male lead (and thence to Batman). It features a thoroughly transformative, spectacular lead performance from Adam Sandler, former Saturday Night Live feature player turned money-printing comedic brand name known primarily for puerile antisocial regressive studio comedies that rake in the box office and are universally panned by critics. Sandler’s prior attempts to branch off from this sophomoric funnyman persona have traded on its entrenched notoreity: Judd Apatow’s Funny People cast Sandler as a famous comedian forced by illness to seek emotional reconciliation with the people around him, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punchdrunk Love cannily weaponized his hangdog awkward desperation to be liked alongside a frequent undercurrent of simmering violent rage. The Safdies flatter their fellow Jewish-American with a deeper well of confidence in his actorly ability to embody a complex, often irritating, but ultimately sympathetic character and play it to the hilt, and Sandler rewards them with a remarkable turn (that was sadly snubbed for a Best Actor Oscar nomination).

The Jewishness of Uncut Gems is among its notable qualities. It’s only one of the many dark ironies of anti-Semitic tropes that Hollywood, supposedly run by a shadowy, greedy, cultural Marxist Jewish cabal in so many conspiratorial Protocols of the Elders of Zion fever dreams, so constantly erases the particularities of Jewish experience in its cinematic product (Christopher Guest, although firmly a goyim, made this point with gentle humour in his prestige-film farce For Your Consideration). The Safdies and Sandler dive headlong into the culture they know well as Jewish New Yorkers, navigating the Jewish-dominated Diamond District, setting a key mid-film sequence at a family Passover dinner, and exploring many Jewish-Americans’ surprising but deep-seated love of basketball (perhaps in the New York Knicks, wandering for decades in the pro ball desert, they see kindred spirits). Although not specifically scriptual in narrative or thematic inspiration like the afore-allusioned Coen Brothers‘ most Jewish film, A Serious Man, Uncut Gems does manifest some essential truths about the Jewish experience in America and beyond, besetting Howard with tension and setbacks and suffering as he scrambles around on the margins of a respectable society that his money has earned him access to but which will always mark him as an outsider due to his ethnic identity (as well as due to him being a quarrelsome dick).

These obstacles related to identity interconnect with a critique of American capitalism and victor’s spoils socioeconomic ideology. A conservative or libertarian observer of Uncut Gems might comprehend Howard Ratner in terms of intrepid entrepreneurial individualism and understand his suffering and punishment as befitting his dangerous, extralegal hustling. Why can’t Howard just sell his jewelry and go home to his family, like a good profit-driven, family-values capitalist who quietly, serenely, deniably profits off of the misfortune of others? Why must he take unwise loans from violent people to pay off gambling debts racked up due to hugely risky sports bets, engage in swing-for-the-fences schemes to auction off African gems of uncertain value, and endanger his safety and stability to impress NBA superstars and tussle with pop singers (The Weeknd, in an amusing cameo)? Because of his own personal flaws, of course. There’s nothing systematically determined or socially reflective about who Howard Ratner is and how he behaves, from this perspective. He meets his fate because of his own choices, his pushy and annoying personality, and nothing else.

But a leftist critic of capitalism sees a rich tapestry of themes and meanings in Uncut Gems. Wealth aside, Howard is marginalized, excluded; chasing his prized opal with his client-recruiting agent Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard is stopped by security at the threshold of a Boston Celtics practice facility and at the Weeknd gig, an unwelcome interloper among the exclusive. Perhaps this inherent social ceiling drives his constant, self-sabotaging striving, an insecurity that underlies his dangerous deals and marital infidelity. The Safdies (who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein) do give Howard one scene of broken-down vulnerability with Julia in which he wallows self-pityingly in the ineffable failures of his life and wonders at their causes and provenance. They don’t connect Howard’s plight with any particular forces, but their construction and layering of ideas invites speculation and analysis.

The scene that follows Howard’s blubbering emotional collapse makes two of the most vital of these ideas as plain as this deceptively artfully-constructed film can be. Kevin Garnett, on the eve of a playoff Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, returns to Howard’s shop to purchase the now-devalued opal (one might wonder at how, looked at from a certain angle, Uncut Gems might be no more than a movie by obsessive NBA fans writing speculative fan-fiction to explain Garnett’s fluctuating performances in the 2012 East Semis). The two men talk about the nature of winning as well as the economic exploitation of Africans and those of African descent in terms pregnant with deeper and knottier meaning. Emphasized by his punchy tagline, “This is how I win”, Howard connects the scarlet thread from (Jewish) Ethiopians risking their lives for pennies a day to dig an expensive gem out of the earth (the film begins with an indelible scene at the mine, a crowd of local workers remonstrating to their Asian foremen while carrying a miner with a shattered leg) that will inspire an African-American basketball star to lead his team to victory, all while he makes a million dollars betting on that result. If capitalism (heck, if being American at all) is all about winning, then it must by necessity have losers, be they impoverished Ethiopian labourers, millionaire professional athletes, or Jewish jewelry dealers. The trick is not to be among those losers, and for Howard Ratner in the Safdies’ superb, gritty, and ultimately painful film, that trick requires a constant, desperate, hustling effort that may finally not be enough. Uncut Gems is one heck of a wilderness survival film, where that wilderness is America’s messy urban monument to the rewards and the costs of unmitigated capitalism.

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