Uncut Gems and the Delirious Wonder of the American Schmuck

Published December 3, 2019

“Exit Poll” is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films our editors are attending. This week: Digital Editor Sarah Nechamkin heads to a screening of Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers’ much-anticipated sophomore effort that brings some coked-up mysticism to the age-old tale of the American schmuck. 

What do you get when you take rage, diamonds, Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, and oodles of cash in a Louis Vuitton bag and throw it on a helicopter en route to Mohegan Sun? Something like Uncut Gems, the latest film from the Safdie Brothers and undoubtedly the peak of The Sandlerssaince (in which The Waterboy, as one reviewer put it, becomes a man). The film follows the zig-zag trajectory of a diamond dealer named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) trying to pay off his debts by auctioning a precious stone that supposedly hails from one of the lost Jewish tribes of Ethiopia. The piece is a prime talisman for Howard’s A-List clients, which include a still-in-his-prime Garnett (playing himself), and as luck has it, it’s 2012, right before the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. 

The fact that the titular gem hails from the Beta Israel is just one layer in a piling of Semitic references thicker than a slice of Bubbe’s kugel. Brimming with anxiety and large groups of people talking over one another—in a Yiddushkeit techno-trance take on Robert Altman, thanks to a score by Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never—the film manages a level of authenticity that reaches beyond its on-the-nose Passover seder, or lines like: “What’s with Jews and colon cancer? Aren’t we supposed to be the Chosen People?” (Howard asks his doctor this when he calls with his colonoscopy results.) The doctor’s response: “Colon cancer paid for my house in the Hamptons.” 

And so we watch as Howard stumbles and falls atop an increasingly fragile house of cards in true schlemiel fashion. (Philip Roth would’ve raised Sandler a l’chaim.) He’s a schmuck, but a sympathetic one, even if his estranged wife—a delightfully acerbic and tight-jawed Idina Menzel—doesn’t think so. The rest of the ensemble is equally fit for their jobs, from Lakeith Stanfield as Garnett’s guardian angel of ice, to Julia Fox as Howard’s fast-tawking, money-hawking girlfriend, to the voice of Tilda Swinton on the phone from the auction house telling Howard that no, he cannot raise his appraisal. 

With its knuckle-cracking sense of humor and dazzlingly frenetic camera pacing through the cluttered streets of Midtown Manhattan, Uncut Gems instills in the viewer a sort of delirious anxiety akin to that of a nail-biting horror romp, or, fittingly, the neck-and-neck final quarter of Game 7 in the NBA finals. It’s become the Safdie signature, since their revelatory 2017 caper Good Time sent a blonde-dyed Robert Pattinson on an acid-induced wild goose chase through Queens and its criminal underworld. But beneath the palpable high of rising cortisol levels that Uncut Gems inspires lies something more measured, even mystical. A few shots in the film plunge into the gems themselves, as if looking inward to find something that really only exists out there, in the wider scope of the cosmos. It’s as if to say that there is something else looming large in this New York trash-scape, with its false diamonds and falser promises. A deep sadness, perhaps—exemplified no better than when Sandler cries bloody-nosed into his girlfriend’s newly-tattooed ass (it says “Howie,” with a heart above the I): “I’m so sad.” But with the sadness, there exists an even deeper sense of wonder—in the mystery behind Garnett’s winning streak during Game 7, for which Howard bet way too much, or how he himself may be inextricably connected to the gem’s magic. Some schmucks have all the luck.