You’ve seen Chanukah-time Adam Sandler before but never like this.
Actually, though the latest from the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, opened nationally on Christmas Eve, and square in the middle of 2019’s Chanukah, the Jewish holiday that “Uncut Gems” loosely revolves around is Passover.
Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, is an inveterate gambler who owns a jewelry store in Manhattan’s Diamond District. He lives high, materially speaking, with sartorial taste that’s expensive but not fashionable. Vogue termed the Ratner look — Gucci shirts with tags still attached, Ferragamo loafers with the belt to match, Rolex on the wrist, rimless, tinted Cartier glasses on the face and, the coup de grace, a Star-of-David pinkie ring — “endearing schmuck style at its finest.” Though Ratner’s clothes are the least of his problems.
To Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), he’s a schmuck but really so much worse — loathsome, repulsive and, the one that cuts deepest, laughable.
Howard’s having an affair with a store clerk Julia (Julia Fox) half his age, an aspiring socialite who throws herself at rap stars in night clubs, yet is emotionally, and financially, dependent on “Howie.” He owns the kind of Manhattan condo that unscrupulous rich men who live with their wives on Long Island keep in the city for their mistresses. This is where Julia, the mistress, lives. Dinah, the wife, knows all about it but is past caring. Howard and Dinah have decided to divorce; they’ll make it public after Passover, so as to let the family seder pass as painlessly as possible.
Meanwhile, his affair and his crumbling family life back on Long Island are but satellite moons constantly revolving around Howard’s more exigent problems, all of which are created, then escalated, by Howard himself.
He’s in hock to his truly detestable brother-in-law, Arnold (Eric Bogosian), and, instead of paying Arnold back when he has the cash on hand, Howard puts a pile of dough on a 2012 Celtics-Sixers playoff game.
Earlier that day, NBA star and Celtic Kevin Garnett walked into his shop and became mesmerized with an uncut Ethiopian black opal that Howard had just acquired from a tribe of Ethiopian Jews — so mesmerized that Garnett wouldn’t leave without it, convinced the rock possesses mystical powers and that he won’t possibly lose a game with it in his possession. Howard does what any sensible person might: he loans Garnett the stone, taking the basketball star’s Celtics championship ring as collateral. He then immediately pawns the Celtics ring, takes the cash and puts his money on a can’t-miss bet, the Celtics and Garnett to win big.
Garnett does, in fact, play emboldened and unburdened and the Celtics do win big (the last part is historical fact; the movie’s events track with the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff series between the Celtics and the Sixers that improbably went seven games). Howard believes he’s just had one of the biggest hits of his life: He can now pay back his pseudo-mobster brother-in-law, get Garnett’s ring out of hock and keep the leftovers for himself.
But the way events unfold is microcosmic of how everything seems to unfold for Howard: the thing Howard is so sure won’t happen does, and what appears to be certain victory is ripped suddenly — and probably in the minds of most viewers, unfairly — from a compulsive, self-destructive hero who’s simultaneously endearing, pitiable and inexorably screwed.
This same roller coaster ride plays out in at least three permutations over the film’s two-and-a-quarter hours. Unlike most roller coasters, this one doesn’t slow to reascend before propelling forward and sideways and upside down at breakneck speeds. The Safdies’ pacing of the film is so consistently full-throttle that viewer exit polls are eliciting responses like “anxiety-inducing” and “emotionally exhausting.”
To those descriptions, add addictive. Howard’s supercharged compulsivity is contagious, seemingly transmitted via viewing. It’s what makes Sandler a bona fide Oscar contender.
“Uncut Gems” is a frenetic full-court press of a movie, with parts that are at least superficially about basketball. In one particularly funny-because-it’s-true moment, the character Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), Howard’s entrée to rapper and athlete clientele, asks the hoops-obsessed Howard, “What is it with you Jewish n***as and basketball anyway?” It’s one of a handful of scenes that speaks to the sometimes-fraught yet inextricably-bound relationship that exists between black and Jewish Americans vis à vis sports, especially basketball, and popular culture.
The Safdie brothers, Sephardic Jews themselves, have made in “Uncut Gems” a movie that is plenty Jewish, if for no other reason than the preponderance of Jewish actors playing Jewish characters who get major screen time — Sandler, Menzel and Judd Hirsch (who plays Sandler’s father-in-law, Menzel’s character’s father), to name just a few.
The Passover scene, at the family’s Seder table, where Howard recites the 10 plagues as his own life is being besieged by every float in the parade of horribles is particularly memorable. In several ways, the story of Passover tracks allegorically with the story the Safdies have constructed here; it’s worth seeing the film to watch Howard try to free himself of the bondage of his own making, even if it’s clear from the start that it’s impossible. JN