The Adam Sandler movie Uncut Gems is maybe the most explicitly Jewish movie since the 2002 movie The Pianist. That is a difficult to define category, as there are loads of small independent films never intended for a wide audience. Movies like Uncut Gems and The Pianist are commercial films intended for a general audience, but also intended to reveal things about Jewish life to that general audience. These movies offer a window into the collective psyche of diaspora Jews.
That is the main layer with Uncut gems. The film tells the story of Howard Ratner, who runs a sleazy jewelry store in New York City. Howard is a degenerate gambler, always dreaming of the big score, as he is always in debt to loan sharks and bookies, due to his gambling. That means he is constantly hustling to come up with cash through his jewelry hustle and other means. Superficially, the movie is about his quest to get and sell an uncut rock full of Ethiopian gems.
The story takes us through Howard’s life and by extension through the inner life of New York City Jews. Howard is a sleazy pervert, the anti-Semite’s caricature of the typical Jewish man. His father in-law, in contrast, is a stable, hardworking guy, who has enjoyed a successful life. His wife is the typical Long island Jewish housewife, which means Howard has a gentile mistress. That is permanent dynamic that seems to define the sex roles among Jews, just as it does Italians.
We follow Howard as he interacts with the world in his bid to get the Ethiopian gemstone sold at auction for what he thinks will be his big score. Meanwhile he tries to hustle basketball star Kevin Garnett, places bets on basketball games, hassles with his flaky mistress and gets beat up by his loan shark, who happens to be his brother-in-law by marriage. Eventually, all of his schemes collapse and his entire life rides on a complicated bet on a basketball game in order to clear his debts.
Interestingly, the loan shark is Armenian, having married into the family. Armenians are known for being as aggressively ethnocentric as Jews, so having an Armenian loan shark, especially one that married into the family, as the main antagonist of Howard’s life offers a glimpse into the Jewish worldview. In a world of ethnic rivalry, the life of the individual will be shaped by those ethnic rivalries. In other words, for members of the Tribe, life is a lifelong struggle between ethnic groups.
Another interesting aspect about the non-Jews in the film is how Howard relates to the blacks in his life. On the one hand, he treats them like furniture. They have no connection to him, other than as opportunities for profit. He tries to hustle the basketball star Kevin Garnett. His primary clientele at his jewelry store is inner city blacks, who wish to look like extras from a hip-hop video. It’s clear throughout the film that the blacks in his life have no real meaning to him as individuals.
Despite this, he has an all too familiar deep affection for black culture that even the blacks notice. In one scene, Keven Garnett ask him why Jews have such a love for basketball, which is one of those jokes that only Jews and people who notice things would appreciate. He also has a thing for hip-hop and its culture. He has a deep fear that his mistress will go off with some local rapper, which becomes the source of a rift between the two of them. He fears being cuckolded.
Another aspect of Jewish life on display in the movie is the cultural and ethnic pressure on Jewish men to succeed. Howard is a bum, but what prevents him from embracing that aspect of his life is the need to be seen as successful within his family and within Jewish society. He is a man torn between his desire to live his life as he would prefer to live it and the ethnic duties that largely define who he is as a man. One theme in the film is his possible divorce from his wife after Passover.
This is something that Jewish novelists like Phillip Roth have tackled. On the one hand, Jewish males are driven to succeed. On the other hand, what defines Jews is their permanent outsider status. Therefore, achieving success and status in the larger society in which they live is not an option, as that’s assimilation. That means the dilemma for the ambitious Jewish man is finding the balance between success in the greater culture, while remaining outside of it.
Of course, in this age, maintaining the outsider identity is impossible for a people who are now the ultimate insiders. It’s why Jews are becoming increasingly schizophrenic in modern America. One face is that of Michelle Goldberg, the shrill anti-white columnist at the New York Times. Another is the patronizing Ben Shapiro, who steadily re-writes the origin story of the West to begin with his family tree. Another is the Jew stripped of all but his superficial identity as a Jew, consumed by modernity.
That is what ultimately makes Howard a sympathetic character. Like the Jewish people, he is not built for modernity and is ultimately destroyed by it. This is proving to be true for Jews in modern America, despite the fact they played a key role in developing the modern American culture. Howard meets his demise at the point of his greatest triumph, when everything he sought is within reach. Fittingly, his demise comes at the hands of the other ethnocentric tribe in the film.
That is the ultimate lesson of the film. Just as Howard is not built to survive in the modern world, the Jewish people are not built for it either. This is a topic within Jewish intellectual circles. A highly ethnocentric people evolved to compete as numerical underdogs need the outsider status to maintain group cohesion. Just as Howard needs some hard limitations on his behavior, Jews need that outsider status to maintain their sense of identity and ultimately their existence.
As far a film goes, and ultimately movies are about entertainment, Uncut Gems is an ugly, difficult to watch story at times. Because everyone in the film is described by their failings, you cannot root for any of them. Unless you’re black or Jewish, you cannot identity with them. At the same time, it is like getting a glimpse into a culture that is systematically hidden from view, despite being in plain sight. Unless you are an anti-Semite, it is an interesting cultural exploration.
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