By Nina Kegelman || Contributing Writer
To be honest, I have a hard time explaining the plot of the 2019 Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, and Kevin Garnett. Does that mean the film wasn’t riveting? Absolutely not.
We’re used to seeing Adam Sandler in his traditionally goofy roles, so some were rightfully confused when the Uncut Gems trailer dropped, and they saw the actor donning a goatee, sunglasses indoors, a baggy leather jacket, and bling (lots of it) for his portrayal of jeweler and gambling addict, Howard Ratner, in what appears to be an intense and dramatic film. Unsurprisingly, to me at least, Sandler rose to the occasion, convincing us of his almost comically out-of-touch and impulsive character in a performance so natural he could have been flawlessly imitating a close friend.
Howard Ratner, like all of the characters, feels so real. His over-the-top presentation and hopeless ambition remind us all of a familiar type of annoying upper-middle class desperation, making us cringe, laugh, and worry all at the same time.
The film catches you off guard right out of the gate. If you’re one for trailers, you’d expect to be immediately set in New York City’s Diamond District, figuring out what trouble Adam Sandler’s gotten himself into this time. Instead, you’re placed in Ethiopia. Injured miners hustle about in graphic displays of agony and duress in the wake of an accident. Two miners enter a cave and quietly and painstakingly carve out a massive black opal gem: what would become Howard Ratner’s downfall.
After a trippy transition featuring gems from a kaleidoscopic point of view, we find ourselves back in New York, and meet the protagonist Howard Ratner, who is on the brink of receiving his precious gem from the “Ethiopian Jews” who mined it. Loosely, the film follows Howard in the aftermath of the black opal’s arrival, navigating a messy oncoming divorce, tumultuous affair, and the devastating gambling addiction not unrelated to those first two.
Throughout the film, Ratner is balancing a multitude of terrible decisions: loaning the gem to basketball star Kevin Garnett for luck, betting money on Garnett’s games, dodging the threats from his loanshark brother-in-law, and taking his family for granted. As Howard runs from the consequences of each, he somehow manages to make each problem worse, building the extreme sense of discomfort and anxiety the film is already renowned for (I remember reading a Tweet: “If you’re Jewish and have anxiety, don’t see Uncut Gems.”)
Though that’s not necessarily my takeaway, I cannot understate the tension and suspense of the story which makes it painfully enjoyable to watch unfold.
The other captivating theme of the film is Ratner’s Jewish identity, connection to the Ethiopian Jews, and the overarching urgent, shameful feel its setting in the days before and after Passover. We’re privy to his family’s awkward Seder dinner, as he and his wife, played by Idina Menzel, plan to hold off on their divorce until after the holiday. As they read the Haggadah and remember the Exodus, we can’t help but associate the plagues Howard lists with his life’s own chaos and troubles, reinforcing a sense of impending doom. Considering Howard’s shortcomings in the morality department, the religious theme reinforces a darker fate for Howard despite his addictive yearning for a “promised land.”
I don’t want to spoil anything, but as Uncut Gems begins and ends with violence, particularly with two rather different forms of it, we’re left on a mournful, empty note, stuck in a circle of pain. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the suffering of the dangerously exploited Ethiopian miners with Howard’s senseless downfall emphasizes the meaningless tragedy of it all: the shallow gambling addiction, the money, the fame. All for what?
I’m still trying to piece together Uncut Gems, and would watch it again given enough time and space to destress afterwards. For that I give it an A… and internally scream that Sandler didn’t even get the decency of a nomination from the academy for a performance that not only makes us forget he’s silly Adam Sandler, but also lets us see him as the darkly and twistedly comedic sealer of his own fate.
Junior Nina Kegelman is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.