The camera pans in slowly on one of the holiest rituals in the Jewish calendar – the Passover Seder. The patriarch, a well-dressed man in his 80’s, leads the prayers with a serious, almost imperious sense of importance, instructing his somewhat distracted guests to dip their bitter herbs and recite the plagues in both English and Hebrew. At this point in the film we’re well-aware of family conflicts that belie the purity and piety of this traditional gathering. We have seen the principle characters compromised by violence, deceit, infidelity, greed, and addiction, and it becomes difficult to reconcile their behaviour with an honest devotion to faith. Like their ancestors depicted in the Haggadah, we can only hope they learn from their suffering to become better people.
After three decades of producing primarily low brow comedies, Adam Sandler, now in his 50’s, steps away from behind the camera to incarnate the role of Howard Rather in Uncut Gems. Howard is a risk-taking New York diamond dealer whose personal problems have accreted in layers to the point where everything around him is about to collapse, shattering like the display case in his cramped establishment. He is seemingly without guilt, convinced his irrational actions have benefits for those around him in the long run.
It’s a challenging role for someone whose previous on-screen personae have mostly been variations of the eternal adolescent, but for Sandler, this is his King Lear. He embraces middle-age for the first time, yelling at his phone out of weary frustration, swearing at televisions and invisible foes on the other end of the telephone line. In stark contrast to his younger lover and the musicians and athletes who seek both his gems and his attention, Howard is welcomed nowhere.
For directors Josh and Benjamin Safdie, previous known for the 2017 thriller Good Time, Uncut Gems is their first real masterpiece, filmed at a frenetic and violent pace in keeping with the chaos surrounding Howard’s daily life. The audience will struggle to see him as any kind of hero, even an anti-hero; he is not simply morally flawed, he is also a physically unappealing, stooped, sweaty, shrieking mass of humanity overwhelmed by failures that only his foolish optimism allows him to ignore. He is not even averse to deceiving family and friends, most of whom can barely stand the sight of him any more than the hired muscle seeking payment for his gambling debts.
Yet, through all this, Howard is also unabashedly a Jew. He bristles with pride when he tells his African American employee about the exploits of Jewish basketball players in the early days of the NBA and the fearless Ethiopian Jews who mine his precious opals. For the uninitiated, Howard’s rudeness seems at first off-putting, but in his world of perpetual deals and backroom bargains it all makes perfect sense. The Diamond District in New York City has long been the domain of Jewish Americans, complete with an esoteric set of grammatical rules and an arcane argot that seems almost confusing to outsiders. Howard’s constant sense of urgency, successfully conveyed in the stunted, rapid-fire dialogue, demonstrates that his type of business does not lend itself to the polite propriety present in typical high-end, 5th Avenue, retail establishments.
Set during the Obama era, Uncut Gems predates the return to open displays of bigotry and racism associated with the recent spate of populist politicians like Donald Trump. Over the last decade, acts of antisemitism have escalated from the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, to racist dog whistles aimed at Jewish politicians and celebrities, to synagogue shooting rampages. In this climate one would expect Hollywood to take a more cautious tone depicting Jewish protagonists, and offer only loveable characters whose personal conduct is beyond reproach.
The Safdie brothers clearly have no intention of pandering to fear, even if Howard Ratner is the very incarnation of the antisemite’s perception of the Jew. The film is gutsy in its honest portrayal of a man coming undone by a thirst for success which eludes him due to his numerous flaws. In this respect he is tragically human, scraping together any form of social capital only to realize he ultimately lacks status. While his Jewishness is central to his character, his plight becomes relatable to anyone attempting to climb a social ladder based solely on material gain that ultimately leads to nowhere.