January 17, 2020

Can A Bad Jew on the Big Screen Be Good for the Jews?

Still "From Uncut Gems"

Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler with colossal gambling debts and thugs snapping at his heels, cheats on his wife, misses work deadlines, draws his family into his increasingly dangerous predicament and spends his daughter’s school play locked naked in the trunk of his car. And this is all before the family seder.

If you haven’t seen “Uncut Gems,” the two-hour adrenaline rush written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, you may be unnerved by Ratner, the lead character played by Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic performance. Chasing down a rare black opal that promises to pay off his debts, Ratner defies Hollywood’s various archetypes of the male Jewish lead. Nowhere to be found are Woody Allen’s neuroses or the hypermasculinity of Israeli commandos in “Fauda” or even the florid virility of the Zohan (another Sandler character).

Instead, Ratner seems to embody all the negative Jewish stereotypes that persist beyond the silver screen. He’s scheming, slovenly and volatile. He robs Peter to pay Paul and he’s helplessly attracted to shiny objects. Ratner’s wife — the conscience of “Uncut Gems” to the extent the film has one — tells her philandering husband after the seder that he is “the most annoying person I’ve ever met in my life.” 

And yet, I could not help but feel that if we’re considering cultural texts in terms of their worth for people of the tribe, “Uncut Gems” is Good For The Jews. That’s largely thanks to Sandler, who breathes sensitivity and earnestness into Ratner as his deals, relationships and wagers alternately save and doom him. His character is transparently flawed, thoroughly human. You find yourself rooting for him in spite of, or perhaps because of, his bold, bad choices. He resonates.

We don’t get to decide how Jews are represented in movies, although if we’re being honest, we have more say than any other religious or ethnic group. All we can hope for is that Jewish characters look and act like real people 

— like uncut gems.

Ratner is unmistakably Jewish even without the seder scene, even without the paunch and the accent, even without the diamond district backdrop. He’s known around town, he’s obsessed with the New York Knicks and he thinks being a little smarter than everyone else affords him a little extra sinning. He’s tender, but he knows that he is.

We don’t get to decide how Jews are represented in movies, although if we’re being honest, we have more say than any other religious or ethnic group. All we can hope for is that Jewish characters look and act like real people — like uncut gems. After all, the contemporary fight against anti-Semitism is our fight not to be seen as fundamentally good people, but as complete people, merely people. In the endearing, disgraceful Ratner, the Safdie brothers pick one bad apple without cutting down the whole tree.

“Uncut Gems” does not have a moral so much as an essence. It captures the feeling of intoxication at one’s believed destiny, carrying the plot on one man’s conviction that the next layer of leverage will tip the scales back into balance. Maybe this outlook is closer to contemporary Jewish reality than we’d like to admit.

Ratner is unmistakably Jewish even without the seder scene, even without the paunch and the accent, even without the diamond district backdrop. He’s known around town, he’s obsessed with the New York Knicks and he thinks being a little smarter than everyone else affords him a little extra sinning.

The movie hits theaters at a time when many American Jews, like Ratner, feel cornered. Resentment is snowballing toward our wealth, our power and our affiliation with a foreign country that is seen to be behaving badly. And like Ratner, we have scrambled to re-leverage our political and financial relationships to ward off our reckoning. Rather than owning our shortcomings and paying our debts, many American Jews have doubled down on asserting moral unassailability both at home and abroad. The essence of “Uncut Gems” is seeing how big a bill can be racked up in service of a myth.

“Uncut Gems” is anything but vintage Sandler, but the writer of the only Hanukkah song that matters is still perceptible behind Ratner’s black shades and tired jowls. The unmistakable Sandler sense of humor is what makes Ratner’s haphazard string-pulling as plausible as it is thrilling. But I know not all viewers, Jewish or otherwise, will see the movie that way. 

Going solo to the movie, I found myself sitting next to a man my age wearing a yarmulke, and his date. They hated it. When I ran into them in the lobby, it turned out they were friends from high school. We caught up, they detailed their complaint and we agreed to disagree. In life, as in art, acknowledging that we are all unique is a great place to start.


Louis Keene is a writer based in Los Angeles. He tweets at @thislouis.