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The unexpected joys of watching ‘Uncut Gems’ on Netflix

I first met Howard Ratner at a sold-out afternoon showing at the Lincoln Square AMC — back when going to the movies was a thing.

The theater was a vivid cross-section of New York life — old gay couples, Modern Orthodox college kids in kippot, young black and Latinx urban professionals. By pinning down Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett for “Uncut Gems,” a film about basketball gambling that splits its time between the Diamond District and Roslyn, Long Island, directors Josh and Benny Safdie had hit all four desired quadrants of the filmgoing public.

The diverse crowd gripped its armrests to the buzzer-beating moments (and that infernal metronome of Ratner’s buzzing security door), as we were assailed with a cacophony of cross-talk, humiliations including a near-defenestration, and secondhand tsuris from the jeweler’s increasingly poor choices. Many of us were sure Sandler and the Safdies would be Oscar contenders. We couldn’t have predicted what came next. To bet on it — and bet right — would have made Ratner’s bold spread on the Celtics look timid by comparison.

I knew I’d revisit “Uncut Gems” one day and probably do it with friends. I never expected to view it under quarantine.

Since the film’s release, a few college chums and I have analyzed its many facets through a cinephile’s loupe. Like a Happy Madison movie, we found “Uncut Gems” to be very quotable with no shortage of standout supporting players. One of them, Wayne Diamond, the George Hamilton-hued performer credited as “Handsome Older Man,” has been a cynosure of our Facebook group chat. (My friend Dan recently contacted Diamond on Instagram to see if he would consider playing an anthropomorphic beetle in his bug musical — Diamond, a fixture of New York’s Fashion District, replied “OK,” but offered no follow-up.)

This Memorial Day, four of us had a socially-distanced viewing party from various parts of New York. One friend, Marcus, was in Astoria, Dan was in central New York. Two of us were 10-feet apart on opposite sides of a wall — my roommate Scott and myself. Due to the structure of Netflix Party, which requires you to be at your own computer to watch and chat with friends, Scott and I opted to stay in our own bedrooms so as not to have some weird double audio experience.

We all anticipated the group-viewing with a certain amount of dread, even though we knew what was coming. But when we dove in, the film took on a different shape: that of a kind of parable — a really funny one.

Be warned that there are many, many spoilers ahead.

Netflix Party offers ample room for running commentary via instant-messaging. Scott informed us that extras in the opening sequence, filmed in Ethiopia, were disappointed that they wouldn’t be meeting Sandler (who apparently is big in the Beta Israel community). I speculated about how the film might have changed had an alternate Howard been cast (the Safdies’ other candidates included Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonah Hill and Harvey Keitel).

But the text box to the side of the screen was also a window for moralizing and tsking Ratner as he moves from one risky gamble to another.

“This film could be 30 minutes long if he just sold Garnett the opal,” I typed.

When you watch the film with the benefit of hindsight, all the story’s pivot points reveal themselves. The overleveraged Howard has plenty of opportunities to clear his debt to his loan shark brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), but bucks these chances for a bigger score.

“Arno would probably take the money and insist on never letting him borrow again,” I wrote towards the end.

“Straight to rehab,” Marcus concurred.

In the course of the two-hour runtime, we became the voice of Howard’s conscience, advising him from the sidelines as he pawns Garnett’s championship ring; gawks at his girlfriend, Julia, from a closet and gets tossed, naked, into the trunk of his Mercedes by a pair of debt collectors that showed up to his daughter’s school play. If there is a consistency to his decision-making, it’s that all of his decisions are bad.

Dan: “This should be required viewing for Gamblers Anonymous.”

By using Netflix Party, we found that a great deal of the movie’s anxiety was relieved; by simply putting our suggestions out into the universe, we felt, in our own feeble way, that we might indicate a better outcome for our obstreperous protagonist. But we also were able to consider our attachment to him.

The Safdies did not make an unbearably harsh film with “Uncut Gems.” They made a movie that cuts its tragedy with humor and even a contagious joy. It’s there in Howard’s striving, his victories and even his defeats.

When his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), laughs in his face, and moves to punch it, we laugh too, especially at her astute appraisal of her soon-to-be ex, “You are the most annoying person I’ve ever met.” When Howard bounds into the Wells Fargo Center in Philly, we savor his giddiness at the prospect of being close to the pros, before he’s turned away.

More than clamoring for this man’s many setbacks, we often typed on the sidebar in anticipation of his most endearing moments: His profane elation when he receives his opal; his joy at informing Garnett that there are actually “African Jews;” his giddy voyeurism in Julia’s apartment and his awe at a bit of stage magic at his daughter’s play.

“Wow,” Howard says, as coins tumble from her mouth.

That one moment, which we all remembered from earlier watches, speaks volumes about Howard Ratner. He’s not so concerned with money as much as he is with the magic trick of having it materialize seemingly out of nowhere — the big, miraculous win.

The theme is reinforced in our favorite iconography from the film: the diamond-studded Furby and the racecar bed of Howard’s youngest son. They’re funny and garish, but they indicate a dissonance of aspiring adulthood and permanent adolescence. Howard’s world is one of, to quote Long Island laureate Billy Joel, “high class toys.”

As we offered our armchair advice, we all came to realize that this was as much a Sandler film as a Safdie Brothers picture. Like so many of Sandler’s trademark characters, Howard is a manchild who never gets a chance to grow up. Viewed from a social distance, and without the gripping silence, the film’s pleasures come into focus and it emerges as a tragic farce, and not just a white-knuckle affair with a lot of nervous laughs. Plus, all the flick’s New York noise and commotion appear less stressful and more, well, nostalgic.

Lately I’ve been teasing my friend Marcus for deciding to watch depressing films during the pandemic — a documentary tribute to the gone-too-soon actor Anton Yelchin and that dirge-like Beastie Boys documentary homage to the late Adam Yauch — but I can no longer do this. The truth is that these films are not about death but about life. While bleak on their surface, they can be uplifting, taking stock of an existence that was always hungry for more. Tragedy is tragedy because the life lost had value. Even a toxic debt-dodger like Howard counted for something in the joie de vivre department.

At the end of the film, I asked my companions how they thought Dinah would behave at Howard’s funeral.

“No tears,” said Dan.

Maybe not. But, quite possibly, laughter.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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