9/10 The opening shot of Uncut Gems is a long push. First, we go deep into a raw black opal, a cousin of which will become central to the plot, seeing, as they say you can, the entire universe in its crevices. But then those crevices turn fleshy and this same shot begins to pull out, and you realize all at once that it’s become the screen of the lead character’s colonoscopy.
That’s where Uncut Gems starts, literally up Adam Sandler’s ass. That’s the level we’re at here.
May 2012, Manhattan- Uncut Gems follows several days in the life of Diamond District jeweler and gambling addict Howie Ratner (Sandler). With varying degrees of success, Ratner juggles his shop, his $100,000 debt to local loanshark Arno (Eric Bogosian), his failing marriage, his employee and mistress Julia (Julia Fox) and the massive black opal he’s just had imported from Ethiopia, which he values at $1 million and which has enchanted a new client, NBA star Kevin Garnett (Himself).
From the first frames of the trailer, Uncut Gems is immediately recognizable as a Safdie brothers film, even to people who’ve never seen one before, which is astonishing. This is the sixth film by Josh and Benny Safdie, but only the second to receive even a moderate theatrical distribution – Good Time peaked at only 721 theaters in August 2017, and their previous work doesn’t appear on Box Office Mojo. The immediate familiarity speaks to a staggeringly strong aesthetic, the honing of which probably owes to all those previous movies that were barely released. But Uncut Gems has exploded into theaters, earning more than $100,000 per screen in limited release and expanding to 2,348 theaters Christmas Day, setting box office records for A24, the celebrated but still fledgling studio.
Good Time is the slightly stronger of the two, but Uncut Gems is a much more aspirational introduction to the Safdie brothers’ particular sense of humor and filthy, grainy world of losers and scum. This is also evidenced by the film’s apparent importance to them personally – they reportedly spent 10 years trying to convince Sandler to take the part while also trying to find a real NBA star whose career would fit the narrative. It’s probably best described as a ratty, schlubby version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but where Martin Scorsese shows his leads suffering for their flaws throughout the runtime, the Safdies delight in how repulsive Ratner is, forcing audiences to stew in his vices like a mudbath of avarice and general sleaze.
The film comes off like a fever dream. Limited to the span of just a few days by the constraints of Garnett’s easily identifiable games, there’s never any real break. The status quo this film establishes is so unstable, Ratner’s situation so extreme from the movie’s first moments, I started out thinking there would be some kind of timeskip after a first act climax, but the movie just plows on. In one sense, it’s a gong show of Ratner’s debauchery and incompetence, but in another, it’s high anxiety – there’s no escape. This situation will never stabilize, we as an audience are trapped in this unstable situation through to the end.
Ratner is one of the most worthless piles of filth in the entire lexicon of film. He’s a completely shameless wannabe conman permanently covered in a thin layer of sweat who exists only to fuck up, compulsive in everything he does from lying to gambling to cheating in any capacity he can think of, seemingly regardless to whether he even thinks it will work out in his favor. He grabs as many resources as he can lay his fingers on and consumes them immediately like a manic tumor. A lot of write-ups of this movie describe Ratner as always having a thousand calculations going on at once, but I don’t think he calculates at all – he seems to just take every risk he can think of as soon as he thinks of it, always having a new hole to throw his money away into.
But at the same time, I kind of love him. As a non-practicing but immediately recognizable member of God’s Chosen People, I’ve always had a strange relationship with the slurry of racial, religious and cultural factors I’m supposed to understand as “Jewishness.” Much has been said about Uncut Gems as a movie about Jewish identity, and tricksters and deal-makers the type like Ratner aspires to be have ever been the heroes of Yiddish folklore, including what I grew up with.
Is this what representation feels like? I come out of the movie wanting to – well, take a shower, mostly – to slur my words and get over on some crime boss and maybe settle down with a nice Jewish girl. Not that I was opposed to any of that before, I just feel very encouraged to now. Is that strange?
I feel strange. I want to see the movie again.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.