One of the many small pleasures I took from Uncut Gems comes fairly early in the movie, when Adam Sandler receives delivery of the movie’s titular stone, a large black opal harvested from Ethiopia. Sandler, who plays Howard Ratner, the perpetually overleveraged Manhattan diamond dealer who dominates nearly every frame of the 135-minute movie, has hinted at the stone’s existence and its accompanying financial windfall since we first encountered him on a colonoscopy table at the movie’s open. As Howard holds the stone, mesmerized, he blurts out: “Holy shit, I’m gonna come.”
It’s a line that puts Ratner in a pantheon of ribald Jewish heroes, ranging from Alexander Portnoy (New Jersey liver masturbator) to Duddy Kravitz (horny Montreal geek). Ratner is the latest in a long line of sympathetic Jewish pervs and idiots, men whose fundamentally crude nature can overpower nearly all other parts of their personality. It’s a key part of what makes Adam Sandler so well-suited to the role, given the gross-out nature of his oeuvre, and his portrayal revives a variety of Jewish stereotype that’s gotten, to my mind, an excessively bad rap.
The basic plot elements of Uncut Gems are thus: Around the time of Passover in the spring of 2012, the gambling addict Howard places a series of large bets on the performance of Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics against the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA playoffs. After bragging to Garnett (and, by extension, the audience) about how he’s acquired the valuable black opal, Garnett senses a personal connection with the stone and, failing to buy it outright, succeeds in convincing Howard to let him borrow it. Howard relents, but not before insisting that Garnett give him his championship ring as collateral. But as the viewer knows by now, Howard owes money to various people, not the least of whom is an aggrieved Armenian named Arno whom we eventually learn is Howard’s brother-in-law.
Everything about Howard’s life is deliriously tacky. He wears transition lenses on Cartier frames, and his youngest son’s bedroom in his suburban Long Island home features a glowing race car bed. He exclusively calls Garnett “KG,” like I did when I played Jewish Community Center basketball at age 17, except that he’s doing it to Garnett’s face, before reminding him to “@ me at Howie Bling” on Instagram. There are basically three women in Howard’s life whom we know of, two of whom (wife, daughter) see him as an embarrassing slug, and the other of which is his mistress. Howard steals from his ostensible friends and embarasses them in public, seemingly just as he prepares to ask them for another favor.
This is the kind of Jewish depiction that used to get Jewish artists trouble. Philip Roth wrote short stories about Jews so unlikeable and stubborn they prompted rabbis to urge the Anti-Defamation League to respond; Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” produced the same kind of squirming when it was published in 1941. Wondering “is it good for the Jews?” is its own Jewish tradition, and before the release of this movie, there were similar moralizing murmurs, suggesting that recent increases in antisemitic violence and fervor might not make this the right “time” to release a movie about such a repugnant Jew.
The over-ambitious Jewish perv is a welcome departure from Hollywood’s current favorite dramatic mode of depicting Jews on screen, the sexed-up and violent Israeli.
Not every Jew depicted in art has to be a saint, or even attempt to be one, and the vague possibility of stimulating a few genuine antisemites has never been a good reason for Jewish artists to stop making good art. To me, the over-ambitious Jewish perv is a welcome departure from Hollywood’s current favorite dramatic mode of depicting Jews on screen, the sexed-up and violent Israeli. 2019’s Red Sea Diving Resort, and 2018’s Operation Finale and 7 Days in Entebbe all feature variations on a similar theme, terrifically strong and beautiful Israelis seeking absolution or revenge for past crimes against the Jewish people and then achieving it. Howie Ratner, on the other hand, is bound for tragedy from the very moment we meet him in the office of his proctologist, Dr. Blauman.
Josh and Benny Safdie, the brother duo who directed Uncut Gems, described Howard in an interview with Slate as someone who is an “accumulation” of all the negative behaviors associated with Jewish materialistic desires, which were themselves a consequence of “stereotypes that were forced onto us in the Middle Ages.” What they sought to figure out with Howard, Josh Safdie said, was “what are the ill effects of overcompensation?”
The present moment for American Jews is, generally speaking, one of great anxiety. Tragedies like a stabbing of Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York this past weekend, or the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, have provoked a sensible amount of panic about Jewish well-being. By and large, however, American Jews have it good. They don’t describe themselves as having experienced much antisemitism personally, and they are economically secure at higher rates than the general population. It’s those conditions that allow the Safdies to explore murkier moral territory, rather than confine themselves to the pressures of positive representation.
On my first watch of Uncut Gems, the thing I kept going back to was something that Leonard Cohen said in the 1960s, lamenting “the absence of God” in the midst of materialistic, assimilated Western Jewry, and going on to accurately predict what would happen to such thoroughly Americanized and secularized Jews: “our monuments will be new parochial schools, and the State of Israel, and a militant Anti-Defamation League, and maybe even a Jewish President of the United States… we must face that despair that none of us dares articulate, that we no longer feel we are holy.” Although it was a treat to see so much of my suburban Jewish childhood’s religious and communal ritual rendered so vividly, it’s what the movie says about the absence of holiness in Jewish life that I am fixated with. Howard tells Garnett that “they say you can see the whole universe in opals,” which is as spiritual as he ever seems to let himself get, as he plans to sell his newly acquired keyhole to the universe as quickly as he can. After all, this is how Howard “wins,” as the meme goes, by increasingly upping his bet, raising the stakes past every possible limit until it’s too late.
In the theater, I was ecstatic to see such a beautiful fuck-up like Howard. Though the contradictions of American Jewish life, of successful assimilation and spiritual vacuity, are hardly new terrain for Jewish artists, the Safdies put a novel, anxiety-inducing spin on a fairly traditional kind of story. And when held up against the prevailing brainless model of how to depict a Jew in action on a movie screen, it does offer something particularly fresh: a Jew totally fucking up on his own terms, with no one else to blame for what went wrong.