Uncut Gems (2019) begins with an unusual transition sequence, where we first see a badly injured Ethiopian miner and a mob of fellow Ethiopian miners (lip service is later paid to them being Ethiopian Jews) on the verge of revolting against what looks to be Chinese mine-owners (and/or “It’s all so tiresome”-styled Asian foremen). This distraction allows two rogue miners to chisel out the titular uncut gem (a rock containing multicolored opal gems), so that ultimately, and through a presumed smuggling network, an unscrupulous Jewish jeweler in NYC can sell it and other shiny things to black rappers and superstitious NBA stars with a surfeit of disposable income. As the two miners admire the rock, the camera slowly zooms into one of its luminous opals. We then ‘enter’ the inner world of the gem via gemological photomicrography, allowing us to see the sharp, colorful, and crystalline topology of minerals-inside-minerals. This inner world of the opal then seamlessly transitions into a colonoscopy camera view of the said jeweler’s bowels, with its own fleshy and odious topology.
Whether this unusual opening to a film is simply intended as a smidgen of scatological humor (a Jewish forte) or has some deeper symbolic meaning is open to interpretation, but what is certain is that Uncut Gems is very much a Jewish film, a critical reflection on modern Jewish identity and one of the most self-consciously Jewish films since the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). As such, the world of professional movie critics love this movie, perhaps because of its saturation in Jewish ingroup realities (i.e., what non-Jews are otherwise told are awful Jewish stereotypes), which might help explain the notable, and often revealing, sociological insights provided by the relatively wide ‘mind the gap’ measurements at Rotten Tomatoes:
The movie is directed by NYC-born Jewish sibling filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, a frequent collaborator with the brothers, and to whom the rabidly anti-white movie critic Richard Brody wrote a glowing profile of some years back. (A previous collaboration by the three, 2015’s Heaven Knows What, a Larry Clark-styled film about a NYC heroin addict, itself has a formidable 21-point Rotten Tomatoes gap skewed in the same direction.)
Uncut Gems centers on the manic Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweler in NYC’s seedy Diamond District (inspired by the experiences of the Safdie brothers’ own rather odd and manic father), and whose life is nothing short of a high-wire act of narrowly escaped destruction, and even death, on a near daily basis. Howard is not a good person, not in the least. He ignores his wife and kids, to the point that most of them come to despise him. He has a trashy shiksa mistress, an employee whom he lets live in his in-city apartment (a glorified man-cave far removed from the nice suburban home he shares with his estranged family). And, most importantly, Howard is a compulsive and degenerate gambler, whose downwardly spiraling habit will ultimately lead to his ruin.
Because of gambling losses, Howard owes a significant sum of money to his brother in law Arno (Eric Bogosian), a loan shark who operates with two vaguely Eastern-European looking mobster thugs. Despite his Semitic-looking features, Arno does not appear to be Jewish himself. (Bogosian is of Armenian descent). A further clue that the ill-fated Arno character is not a Jew takes place when, during a Passover celebration, Howard’s Jewish father in law Gooey (Judd Hirsh) is talking to another Jewish relative about Arno. “You know what he says to me. He comes over to me and says ‘Happy Holidays.’ Like it’s Christmas. It’s like having an intruder in your own home.” Gooey’s interlocutor replies “He’s not bothering anybody, right?” to which Gooey responds “He’s trying. Easy for you to say; he didn’t marry your daughter.”
That Gooey’s display of paranoia here, as well as his ethnocentric contempt for the goy that his daughter has married, takes place during a Passover celebration is no accident. In an interview about the film, Josh Safdien, one of the film’s co-directors, discusses how the Passover (Pesach) scene was deliberately placed in the movie for thematic reasons:
The fact that the movie takes place around Passover, the holiest of holidays, is so apt. This particular holiday, you’re supposed to derive much meaning from suffering, in a movie about a guy where your hero is enduring and suffering. … Once we landed on Passover itself, you start to mine your own personal experiences with Pesach and certain intricacies of thousands of years of tradition connected to this barbaric story.
Both the context for creating this scene, and the scene itself, provide insight into a central feature of modern Jewish consciousness, the framing of social conflict in terms of purported anti-Semitism and an all-encompassing sense of historical and ongoing persecution. “Jewish religious consciousness,” writes Kevin MacDonald in Separation and Its Discontents (1998, p. 215), “centers to a remarkable extent around the memory of persecution. Persecution is a central theme of the holidays of Passover, Hanukkah, Purim, and Yom Kippur.” In The Ordeal of Civility (1974), John Murray Cuddihy draws attention to how the Jewish sense of persecution underwent something of a narrative reboot in the nineteenth century (which radically accelerated after World War II). Cuddihy points out that whereas pre-modern Diaspora Jewry explained its Exile “as a punishment from God for its sins,” beginning in the nineteenth century, after Jews were granted civic emancipation in the predominately Christian nations of the West (so-called Emancipation), secular Jewish elites began to re-frame the Jewish Diaspora in secular terms:
Before Emancipation, Diaspora Jewry explained its Exile… as a punishment from God for its sins. After Emancipation, this theodicy, now turned outward to a new, Gentile status-audience, becomes an ideology, emphasizing Gentile persecution as the root cause of Jewish “degradation.” This ideology was so pervasive that it was shared, in one form or another, by all the ideologists of nineteenth-century Jewry: Reform Jews and Zionists, assimilationists and socialists, Bundists and Communists — all became virtuosos of ethnic suffering. … The point is that these Diaspora groups were uninterested in actual history; they were apologists, ideologists, prefabricating a past in order to answer embarrassing questions, to outfit a new identity, and to ground a claim to equal treatment in the modern world. (Cuddihy 1974, p. 177)
In a recent interview about the film, Josh Safdie expresses this prevailing, modern form of Jewish self-consciousness, one which interprets Jewish overcompensation and materialism to be functions of persecution:
I think that Howard, the character Adam Sandler plays, falls in a long tradition. I think the humor of the film is explicitly Jewish. … This concept of learning through suffering is very Old Testament. Obviously, we are Jewish, so that perspective is easy for us. But in addition to that, the early inspirations were these titanic 20th-century Jews, these overachievers, these overcompensators, these guys with interesting perspectives based on that, trying to work their way into society: the Rodney Dangerfields, the Lenny Bruces, the Don Rickles, the Al Goldsteins…
I think what you see in Howard is the long delineation of stereotypes that were forced onto us in the Middle Ages, when the church was created, when Jews were not counted toward population, and their only way in, their only way of accruing status as an individual, as a person who was considered a human being, was through material consumption. That was the only way in. … What you’re seeing in the film is a parable. What are the ill effects of overcompensation? Why?
While not plentiful, there are other insightful moments of Jewish self-consciousness in the dialogue of Uncut Gems. We find this through moments of black humor (“Jews and colon cancer. What’s up with that? I thought we were the chosen people,”) and when Howard gives NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) a quasi-rationalization for his greed, and why he has not been forthcoming with Garnett, trying to maximize his profit from him vis-à-vis having his father shill to bid up the price of the titular gem at auction. Howard points to how Garnett, even when a basketball game is clearly won, will still go 100% in order to up his numbers and prove to the world his greatness. “Come on! KG,” Howard says to Garnett, “This is no different than that. This is me. All right? I’m not a fuckin’ athlete, this is my fuckin’ way. This is how I win. All right?”
In many lengthy sequences, the film is unnerving to watch, due to the cacophony of voices talking over each other with extreme intensity, and within an environment of constant crisis and chaos, like a continuous cinematic panic attack, all of which is accentuated by Darius Khondji’s cinematography and the film’s frenetic pace. In the end, this level of aural chaos (which is far more disorienting than anything done by Cassavetes, Altman, Scorsese, or Paul Thomas Anderson in their films) is a deep flaw, but one that various Jewish film critics admire for its literal familiarity (Jews are nothing if not noisy and psychologically intense; here, p. 24) and symbolic relevance.
Of the film’s noise pollution, P.J. Grisar, writing in The Forward, puts it this way: “For a Jewish viewer, it will likely often be triggering in its familiarity.” Grisar, who praises the film, first exhibits the obligatory “Is-it-good-for-the-Jews?” caution towards any depiction of Jews in an unflattering light:
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. …
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’ resistance to examining a Ratner is understandable. There’s a justifiable fear that such characters are a shanda far di Goyim.
Ultimately, however, Grisar seems to take the position that non-Jews in the audience are sophisticated enough to see the “unflattering face of American Jewry” depicted, or, at a minimum, that Jewish audiences’ fears should be allayed in the spirit of self-criticism:
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.
One suspects that such critics would have a quite different attitude if they thought the film would make a dent in the contemporary reality of Jewish power. Indeed, films made by Jews with negatively depicted Jewish characters are really a marker of Jewish power. The strongly identified Jews who make these films would be loath to actually damage to Jewish interests.
In a similar vein, Noah Kulwin, in a review of the film titled “In Praise of the Difficult Jew”, goes so far as to say:
Ratner is the latest in a long line of sympathetic Jewish pervs and idiots, men whose fundamentally crude nature can overpower nearly all other parts of their personality. It’s a key part of what makes Adam Sandler so well-suited to the role, given the gross-out nature of his oeuvre, and his portrayal revives a variety of Jewish stereotype that’s gotten, to my mind, an excessively bad rap. …
Not every Jew depicted in art has to be a saint, or even attempt to be one, and the vague possibility of stimulating a few genuine antisemites has never been a good reason for Jewish artists to stop making good art.
Gabe Friedman, in his review for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, notes how the film “deeply explores modern Jewish identity.” while in Slate, Heather Schwedel refers to Uncut Gems as an “extremely Jewish film.” The aforementioned Richard Brody calls the film a “brilliant masterstroke”, praising the Safdies for having “long specialized in drama kings and queens, in protagonists who knock their lives out of joint and into action with breathless, reckless, perpetual cycles of frenzied, self-imposed challenges and daily dangers… The Safdie brothers have always been artists of chaos.” Like other Jewish reviewers of the film, Brody describes Uncut Gems as “a very Jewish movie,” particularly in the way it is “tonally Jewish.” Brody, too, characterizes Jewish materialism and deception, as well as Jewish paranoia and internalized outsider-ness, as functions of historical Gentile persecution and ensuing Diaspora:
The hustle knows no nationality, but the Forty-seventh Street trade in precious stones reminds me of the old joke about why there are so many great Jewish violinists: because when you’re being chased out of town by the Cossacks, it’s harder to carry a piano. Portable wealth defined by no one currency corresponds to the longtime demands of rushed migration, as well as the inner state of exile and outsiderhood that’s part of the Jewish heritage (indeed, in the Passover story). The panic and the paranoia that drive Howard have an underlying historical undercurrent, a weird sense of belonging that he finds in the uncertainty, the instability, the terror, the exclusion that he endures—even if he largely brought it on himself.
* * *
It should be said that Sandler is terrific in the lead role. While I’m not necessarily a fan of all or even most of his movies, I’ve always found him to be comedically, musically (“The Chanukah Song”; “Lunch Lady Land”), and dramatically talented, quite humble in interviews, and possessing a ‘relatable’ quality rare in Hollywood. (It was perhaps fitting that he starred in a remake of Frank Capra’s 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which starred everyman Gary Cooper, as Mr. Deeds in 2002). Sandler has proven himself capable and reliable, whether in his early goofball comedies, to his dramatic turns in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), to throwaway but fun movies like Murder Mystery (2019). (It’s worth noting that Sandler graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts before he ever entered the world of stand-up comedy.)
Ultimately, however, Uncut Gems fails due to a series of fundamental flaws. The script feels incomplete. Various characters are shown, in passing, vocalizing digressive and inconsequential asides. There is the pat and violent ending, a now-standard trope in post-Scorsesean cinema. (Note: Martin Scorsese is a co-producer of the film.) There is the prevailing chaos in dialogue and miscellaneous diegetic sound. There is the agonizing weight of profanity used throughout the film (which apparently has the seventh most F-bombs in movie history). But the most serious and critical flaw is that Howard Ratner is not a character we can feel sorry for, root for, or even care about. He displays no dignity and his narcissism is boundless. The film’s defenders will likely offer some form of postmodern argument that this is deliberate and provocative, that standard, three-act character arcs, especially when this arc involves redemption or growth, are horribly passé, etc. But when the audience doesn’t care about a movie’s protagonist in any substantive way, that movie will be forgotten in time.
The phenomenon of Jewish neuroticism, while often joked about in Jewish humor (e.g., Woody Allen, Larry David) or elaborated upon in Jewish literature (e.g., Philip Roth), is, like other Jewish “stereotypes” typically a subject that non-Jews are not allowed to broach, else they be branded anti-Semites. However, many Jews themselves accept the basic premises of a Jewish predisposition for mental illness and the idea of a “psychological Jewishness.” (As a personality trait, neuroticism is likely half or more attributable to genetics).
For the Dissident Right, the value of watching Uncut Gems may lie in how the film serves as a symbolic reflection of Jewish neuroticism. Through devices of chaotic direction and frantic delivery, the stereotypes of Jewish intensity, overcompensation, obnoxiousness, money obsession, paranoia, and continuous persecution complex are on full display, as is that world-weary form of Jewish pessimism which, in this case, seems to have its ultimate expression in the lead character’s suicidal death wish.