NEW YORK — “Uncut Gems” is the most dynamic and high-energy movie of the current season, and it is also extremely, almost aggressively Jewish. You don’t have to be a member of the Tribe to enjoy it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
This project has been years in the making for sibling auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie, two by-their-bootstraps filmmakers that have been delighting in-the-know festival attendees for over a decade. Their resumé includes experimental short films, ultra low-budget New York City street scene dramas and a documentary about a coulda-been-a-contender basketball star. With “Uncut Gems” it isn’t that they finally made the big leagues, it’s that the big leagues finally came to them.
Adam Sandler (whose previous, albeit rare, non-silly films include collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach) stars as Howard Ratner, a man that Lenny Bruce would affectionally call “a junkyard Jew.”
He works that curiously Jewish lane in midtown Manhattan, West 47th street, known by most as the Diamond District. He lives on Long Island’s north shore and keeps an Upper East Side high rise apartment with a younger (non-Jewish) employee/mistress. He’s always working the angles, always this close to a big score, he’s got a hundred calculations going on in his head at all times and it’s either about to come crashing down or he’s going to make it to the Promised Land.
“Uncut Gems” is, by all accounts, the only motion picture in history wherein a tense, not-quite-ethical business deal is interrupted by children searching for the afikomen. Howard Ratner represents a kind of Jewish type that maybe isn’t our best choice for public relations, but he’s undeniably real. The Safdies modeled him after associates of their father.
The story involves the curious intersection of Jewish jewelers and African-American musicians and NBA stars. Much of Howard’s adventures surround gambling and putting his thumb on the scale at an auction, but he isn’t driven by cheating, he’s driven by being the best. Schemes are his art, and as he explains to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself in the film) when he reveals a convoluted bet, “this is how I win.” Howard Ratner was born this way.
While the Safdie Brothers are visible on the New York scene, my conversation with them happened while they were on the road promoting the hell out of this movie. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Okay we are doing this over the phone and you have similar voices, but let me know who is who?
Benny Safdie: Hey this is Josh.
Josh Safdie: Hey this is Benny.
Benny and Josh: No, we’re screwing with you, it’s the other way.
Josh: Honestly, I am so used to seeing Benny get credited with something brilliant that I said.
Benny: At this point, honestly, just go ahead and say we are one person.
That would maybe make this easier.
Josh and Benny: Go for it.
Look, we’ve talked before, but today’s interview is for The Times of Israel, so we may get into Talmudic territory. I have one fundamental question: is Howard Ratner a righteous man?
Yes, deep down he is a righteous man. He is always looking for the angle, and to outsmart someone, but he does draw a line. This movie catches up with him just as he begins to lose sight of that line. He’s lost it somewhere between his resentment and admiration of the ruling class. He wants to be accepted so badly, and to prove his worth with such intensity, that he has spun out. The movie shows what happens when you try to cheat God.
Also you see the line with his family. He cares about how his decisions will affect them. If he didn’t have this feeling of righteousness he wouldn’t recognize his transgressions.
At first you do think this is movie might be “Portrait of a Scumbag.” He’s cheating on his wife, he can’t stop gambling, and so on. But his relationship with his mistress is… kinda sweet? Like, maybe they are meant to be together?
His desire to be with a non-Jew falls into that tricky spot. He is desirous of the assimilated culture, but still feels the pull to his roots. But in the end, it’s a real life. He doesn’t have to be “on” around her. She’s the only one, really, who understands him. It’s a match. They are both gamblers and risk-takers. They knew what they were getting into from the start; there was a type of agreement. And the relationship is much deeper than what you first think.
Some think that New York’s Jewish character is fading. Do you agree?
I don’t see it because I’m surrounded by it. But religion — and cultures that are defined by religion — in general are in decline.
But to look at Judaism… the Old Testament is a realist document. You derive meaning from pain, more or less. That’s why I think fans of the New York Knicks have such a Jewish following — not just because they are a New York team. Jews derive meaning from this.
If you look at the Passover scene in our movie, there’s religion, but also bonding and kinship over a shared experience. It speaks to a larger conversation about how so much Jewish culture has derived from being the outsider. The fact that the NBA was once comprised of so many Jewish players was because basketball was a sport you could play on the street. Jews were banned from other sports, so it was a street sport that thrived.
The Diamond District scenes in this film are a delight for those of us familiar with that area in New York. How much did your production disturb business? Were salespeople jockeying to get in the movie?
I love that we got the twins — the guys to whom Howard pawns Kevin Garnett’s ring. Marshall and Ronnie Greenberg are part of the fading Ashkenazi Jews in the Diamond District. They are free agents there. Ronnie actually went to film school at NYU with our cinematographer Darius Khondji, so he was really into it.
We met them when we were doing research. They were in a back room on the eighth floor and I just couldn’t believe how they look at these gemstones with a mix of spirituality and unbridled consumerism.
There were some people who thought the movie would be a nuisance, then once it started they wanted in. But Marshall was someone we had to convince to do it. We didn’t upend business on the block; everything stayed open. We wanted it open. You have real people coming in, and in one shot someone is looking at an $85,000 necklace in the background.
That bazaar is, in fact, where I bought my wife’s engagement ring, in cash. Where the guy told me to take it outside to look in the sunlight and said “I know you won’t steal it.”
Who was that?
The table is actually called “Mr. Diamond.”
A scene with those brothers that is, to me, the most important in the film.
Wait, when he first pawns it or when he goes back?
When he goes back and, in the midst of all the hondling, he calls Howard bubi.
Yes! That’s —see, here is what is incredible about it. I told Marshall that he has seen Howard at his absolute lowest before, but this is so bad it scares you. He improvised that line. “Bubi, is everything okay?” When he did it, I wrote an email to our producer Scott Rudin that night saying, “You won’t believe what happened!” Scott wrote back, “I can’t believe I’m a part of this.”
The way he grabs his hand and pulls him in. After all the back and forth about what he owes, it’s almost Borscht Belt comedy at the beginning — “What happened to your face?” “Car accident.” Then they go into the deal. It’s like a routine. But at that moment it breaks. They have an understanding, a bond.
These guys are out for blood, but they are not monsters.
Exactly. They are, in their way, righteous men.
You have a pattern of Jewish materialism that goes back centuries. Money lending and gold speculation were the only employment opportunities for European Jews. They couldn’t own property or enter guilds. Jewelry was the only way Jews could attain power. This maybe catalyzed the materialism that perhaps stifled some spiritualism, but also created a natural hostility between Jewish and non-Jewish culture. Jews were allowed to deal with money because it was dirty. It was like, “You deal with it!” So, “Okay, we’ll deal with it, but we’ll also get good at it.” Then, when other cultures resent it, it’s like “Hey, you gave us this responsibility! Now you hate us?”
Howard is heir to this rich history.
In Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece “The Pawnbroker,” Rod Steiger has that legendary monologue where he breaks this all down. And this history, this shame, is what destroys him. For Howard Ratner, though, he feels the same history, but he isn’t ashamed. He’s proud. “This is how I win,” he says.
He owns it. We discussed this with Sandler a lot. So much of the representation of Jewish people in films are weak or nebbishy. He never backs down. Even when he’s getting roughed-up the most, he’ll still reach out and smack someone. This is a big, big deal for us.
Even when he’s getting roughed-up the most, he’ll still reach out and smack someone. This is a big, big deal for us
Howard is trying to connect with modern, popular culture. He’s out at clubs, seeing The Weeknd. But I feel like when no one is looking, he’s much more into Steely Dan or Billy Joel?
Of course. That’s why “The Stranger” blasts in that one moment. Someone like Billy Joel is a Long Island Mega-Jew King. For Howard he represents the path. He’s accepted by everyone. But Howard also loves getting groovy.
“Uncut Gems” is playing in New York and Los Angeles, and expands wide across North America on December 25.
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