If you see Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” when it opens on Christmas Day, you may see art reflecting life in unfamiliar ways.
As the lights go down and Adam Sandler springs to frenetic life as protagonist Howard Ratner, a New York Diamond District sleaze, you might muse as to why it took so long for someone of his boorish, magnetic ilk to get a star turn in a film. You may also wonder, there in the dark with your coreligionists, if non-Jews are really ready to encounter Ratner without viewing him as proof of certain ethnically-charged judgments.
Sure, the American public has been primed to accept a certain sanitized yiddishkeit via “Seinfeld” and the schtick of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. And courtesy of two other filmmaking brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, cinephiles have lately become fluent in another more serious mode of Jew: the tortured schlemiel haunted by ancestral anxiety.
But the Howard Ratners of the world have rarely been allowed on screen on their own terms, or with such specificity. Surely, film history has no dearth of stereotypically greedy, sex-crazed or slovenly Chosen, but never ones so thoroughly and meticulously rendered by and for Jews. Jewish auteurs’s resistance to examining a Ratner is understandable. There’s a justifiable fear that such characters are a shanda far di Goyim.
Ratner is a man driven by vice and flagrant in presentation, adorned with rimless glasses, diamond-pierced ears and a prized Knicks championship ring glued to his finger. He’s also the type of guy who forgets to remove the tags from his shirts. He is irrepressible, grating and yet somehow hard to hate as he strives for his biggest win, to the detriment of all around him.
The trouble begins when a crew of thuggish debt collectors come by his store. Ratner owes them 100 grand from his sports gambling habit, but he has an ace up his sleeve coming in that same day: The Celtics’s Kevin Garnett, who promises a big payday.
As it happens, Garnett, who plays himself, arrives at Ratner’s shop in the same hour as a stone-encased block of black opals from Ethiopia. Mesmerized by the stones, Garnett offers to buy them for enough money to clear Ratner’s gambling debts. It would be a very short film if Ratner agreed to that price. But he thinks they’re worth a whole lot more, and plans to auction them for over a million.
It’s the first of many poor decisions over a whiplash-inducing two hours. Howard jeopardizes his marriage and business by continuing an affair with a much younger employee, Julia (Julia Fox); pawns Garnett’s championship ring, which the power forward left him as collateral; and runs backstage at his daughter’s high school play while dodging money-seeking goons.
Filmed in unsettling close-ups, punctuated by noise pollution and a synth-heavy score by Daniel Lopatin, “Uncut Gems” often feels like a personal affront to a people prone to dyspepsia. For a Jewish viewer, it will likely often be triggering in its familiarity. Ratner is a new brand of ambassador for the People of the Book, an alternative to the nebbishes and benignly annoying types we’re used to seeing, in some ways not so distant from villains whose portrayals flirt with — or outright buy into — anti-Semitic tropes. Your tolerance for his cringe-y behavior may best be judged by whether or not you enjoy that most Jewish of properties, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is as fundamental to the film’s DNA as the anti-heroics of “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad.”
And yet, while we shake our heads over Ratner’s decision-making, it’s hard not to relate to his ambition to bet everything on some malformed vision of the American dream. As he tells Garnett, showing the basketball player the tepid Vegas odds on his success in the playoffs, “Doesn’t that make you want to say ‘fuck you for doubting me?’”
The Safdie brothers have been working up to “Uncut Gems” for a decade. While its scope is more ambitious than their previous work, it retains their hallmarks — first-time actors (Fox, Garnett and a crew of actual jewellers), real locations and a refusal to be didactic about the lived-in world the film presents. When Julia gets a tattoo of Howard’s name, he says, “You can’t even be buried with me now,” but doesn’t go into the halacha of it all. Howard’s kids tear up their grandfather’s house looking for the afikomen, but the film stays mum on what the afikomen is, or why it matters.
Most of all, “Uncut Gems” feels no need to explain Howard Ratner, positioning him as a fact as eternal and unchangeable as the black opals he hopes to use to make his fortune. In a time of growing anti-Semitism, the choice to devote a film to an unflattering face of American Jewry might appear treacherous. In fact, it is as humanizing as it is defiant. We, like any other people, have unsavory characters, who root their personal identities in our peoplehood. We should not have to make excuses for or overlook them for fear of what others might say. We need not sit shiva for them either. And, yes, we can even enjoy them.
The first decade of the 2000s ended with the Coens’s “A Serious Man” (2009), a Midwestern, Jobian parable of a Jewish school teacher whose life falls apart due to his unavoidable fecklessness. With “Uncut Gems,” the Safdies take things a step further by activating a new type of Jew, concluding this decade with a New York tale of a man whose utterly avoidable actions undo him.
The contrast makes one wonder what Jewish cinema might look like if we were unafraid to be obstreperous, lewd, crude and amoral. In other words, permit ourselves to show our people as just as flawed — really, just as ordinary — as everyone else.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org