An Unserious Man

The Jewish Currents editorial staff reflects on Uncut Gems.

The Editors
January 23, 2020
Adam Sandler
Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. Photo courtesy of A24.

Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ winter blockbuster starring Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a sleazy diamond dealer caught in an escalating series of debts, might be the most explicitly Jewish mainstream movie since the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). Its release prompted the following emergency meeting of the editorial staff of Jewish Currents to discuss what Uncut Gems says about contemporary Jewish identity. This conversation has been condensed and edited, and includes spoilers.

Arielle Angel: Does Howard Ratner have to be Jewish? Could he have been Italian or something? Why is he Jewish?

Jacob Plitman: If we’re asking does a crime film about a desperate man trying to make money have to be about a Jewish character, I think the answer is no. If he was Italian, we might just call it a mob movie and it would fit more cleanly into a genre with other tropes we’re very familiar with.

David Klion: I find it hard to imagine the movie where he’s not. The industry that the movie is centered on is heavily dominated by Jews. Also, the overriding effect that the movie seems to have on virtually everyone who sees it is one of intense anxiety, which feels like a very Jewish theme.

JP: In The End of Jewish Modernity, Enzo Traverso argues that there are two paths for contemporary Judaism, represented by two archetypes: Leon Trotsky and Henry Kissinger. But Ratner is neither Trotsky nor Kissinger. This film is not remarking on the mid-20th-century Jewish position as the archetype of history. Ratner is nowhere near that. He’s a shlimazel trying to make money, which to me represents a closer, more intimate critique of how many Jews actually are—which is to say, pretty normal, average, shitty people.

AA: Wait, that makes it sound like Ratner’s been deracinated by his shittiness. But there are plenty of stories about Ratner-like Jews. It’s the whole history of European antisemitism—Fagin and Shylock. And now here are the Safdie brothers—who are Jewish—telling this story, and a lot of Jews who watched it are like, “Maybe this is antisemitic?”, but also, “I know that guy.” Which is a really uncomfortable feeling to have.

Nathan Goldman: I think part of what’s interesting about what the film is doing is the way it transforms the caricature that Arielle’s talking about into the modern literary archetype that Jacob’s talking about. Because it’s not just like a flatly realistic depiction of this Jewish asshole. It makes a whole world out of him. The film is sort of parable-like—it has a metaphysical undertone. The fact that we enter and exit Ratner, through the opal and through his body—speaking of assholes, through his colon—does make him a kind of archetypal figure.

Ari M. Brostoff: There’s that scene where the daughter is in a school play; she appears to be some kind of medieval villager Jew with coins literally coming out of her mouth. That seems like a moment where the movie is telling you how aware it is of what it’s doing.

DK: I think we’re onto something with this idea of Ratner as Shylock archetype. Right in the title, and in everything that drives the action of the movie, is an economic sector that Jews have languished in for most of our history.

When we talk about capitalism now, we’re often asked to distinguish between, on the one hand, the real economy of manufacture and production, and on the other, a new economy of abstractions—financial products, derivatives, apps—which is where the real money is. What’s interesting about gems is that they exist somewhere in between. A gem is a physical thing that is mined and refined and processed and sold, but its value is entirely positional and social, a way to flaunt wealth and social status. On top of that, a kind of unfashionable way to do it. Ratner is both the old economy—the medieval merchant—and a modern exploiter of the Global South.

AMB: So if Ratner is a Jewish archetype, what’s unfamiliar about him here is that he’s not the mid-20th-century American Jewish archetype. It’s actually one that goes back a thousand years. It’s much easier to understand this character as a manifestation of that thousand-year-old archetype than it is in relation to a Philip Roth character.

Our esteemed former colleague Noah Kulwin wrote this piece about how you see in Ratner the lineage of Alexander Portnoy and Duddy Kravitz, and I don’t agree. Yeah, he’s a gross guy, and those are also gross guys, but he’s a really different thing. He’s, as Jacob was saying, a shlimazel with no privileged relationship to history. Those characters are so self-conscious, that’s their whole thing. They’re like, “Oh, we are in the process of becoming white, and it’s breaking our minds, and our mothers.” Ratner is just a guy. He does not have self-consciousness.

JP: Ratner’s over-leveraged, and there’s this sense that he may have to flee. He’s also immune to humiliation. When he’s naked in the trunk, he’s just like, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right inside.”

AMB: He has extra clothes with him. He knows it could happen at any moment.

JP: Exactly. He’s ready, and also sort of immune to it. The only thing that can conquer him is a bullet in the head.

AA: What’s uncomfortable, then, is the film positioning this old, pernicious Jewish character as a figure of contemporary American capitalism. 

DK: Everyone in this movie is in some way marginal to the true American mainstream, insofar as it’s a movie about capitalism. This is not a movie about Wall Streeters or techies. It’s not a movie about the educated professional class, and it’s not a movie about WASPs or Jews who are deracinated. Almost everyone in the movie is either black or legibly ethnic: Jewish, Armenian, or Russian. 

AMB: And they’re all new money. I actually read Ratner as the only Jewish character in the movie who’s marked, by his name, as Ashkenazi—I assumed his wife’s family was supposed to be Sephardi or Mizrahi. They read to me as part of this newer quasi-racialized demographic—post-Soviet émigrés, Iranian Jews, the Kardashians—that’s intersecting with blackness and whiteness in ways we’re still figuring out how to talk about. 

AA: I read them as Syrian Jews.

AMB: Yeah, I did too. The Safdie brothers are half-Syrian. So what does it mean, then, that Ratner, an Ashkenazi Jew, has become part of this milieu? I think it suggests a retelling of the old story about how Jews, along with other “white ethnics,” melted into the American mainstream while retaining their old-timey foodways. Ratner, on the other hand, seems to indicate that even as some Ashkenazi Jews fully assimilated and became white, others—because of class—remained in this murky category. He’s been swept up into the world of his wife’s family and the mix of people around the diamond business, and he’s more legible there.

DK: We should discuss the pivotal scene with Kevin Garnett that sets off the climactic sequence. The most memed scene in the movie: “This is how I win.” It’s this neat little examination of race and capitalism, in which Garnett catches on to the fact that Howard is massively profiting off of this deal they cut. And ultimately that they’re both profiting off of the Ethiopian mining operation that we see at the beginning of the movie. And he seems to convince Garnett that his talent for petty bourgeois exploitation is basically the same thing as being good at basketball.

AA: It may not have worked with any other basketball player besides Garnett. When Ratner is saying to him in that room, “This is how I win,” he’s saying that because he knows that Garnett is one of the most ruthlessly competitive players in the NBA. He’s notorious for saying and doing really fucked-up things to players on the paint—saying he fucked their wives, or like barking or blowing in their faces. Waging psychological warfare in order to win. You couldn’t make this movie with LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Those are beloved, morally upright characters.

AMB: It has to be someone whose performance you can bet on, but also who sucks as a person.

NG: It seems important that the people who mined the opal are Ethiopian Jews. Aren’t the black opals decorating the yad or something, when the Ethiopian Jews are reading Torah, in the scene where Ratner’s showing Garnett the video where he discovered it? Ratner is compelled by that in an almost religious sense. There’s a spiritual dimension that he’s interested in, and some kind of feeling of community—Am Yisrael. But then, of course, it’s the inspiration for him to buy this opal from them to sell at a huge profit. So it turns out that the founding violence of the film is a white Ashkenazi Jew exploiting black Jews. 

AA: Well, isn’t that also so Jewish? Historically, weren’t Jews merchants in part because they had access to Jews in other places? I don’t know. I’m changing my whole thing. I came in thinking, he’s American, but actually now, no, he’s a fucking Jew.

AMB: After America, there will still be the Jew.

JP: I’m not sold. It depends on what you mean by “the Jew.” Really, he’s just a normal, scummy guy dressed up as a Jew, dressed up in these mannerisms, but really his main connection to Jewishness is this material connection to this diamond mine many thousands of miles away. 

There’s the intimation of world politics at the beginning when it’s Chinese guys who own the mine. There’s a whole world out there happening, and then it’s happening inside of this gem and Ratner cannot see it. The movie is about a man who comes into possession of a piece of the universe and doesn’t know what it’s worth.

AMB: Or only knows what it’s worth.

JP: And then he’s wrong. At the auction it’s worth way less than he thought!

NG: Are you sure he can’t see it? Ratner literally says, “You can see the whole universe in these things.”

JP: I think Ratner is a man without metaphysics. He’s incapable of metaphysics, or meaning, or any of these things. The question to me isn’t so much, does he have to be Jewish? Rather, it’s this: what does the fact that he’s Jewish mean? In this case, nothing. He’s festooned with Jewish symbols—the sign on his shop that’s a blessing for the store, the book Great Jewish Men—but when you ask what’s really Jewish about it, Jewish on a level deeper than a pastiche of symbols, it’s hard to answer the question.

There’s that Leonard Cohen quote where he says Judaism is “a secretion with which an eastern tribe surrounded a divine irritation—a direct confrontation with the Absolute. Today we covet the pearl, but we are unwilling to support the irritation.” Ratner doesn’t even come away with the pearl. He’s got nothing. He’s the non-Jewish Jew, in the opposite sense of Isaac Deutscher’s non-Jewish Jew. That to me was the central uncomfortable reality where this best reflects our lives—more than, say, the spiritually fraught main character of A Serious Man.

AA: In that sense, he’s American.

JP: Exactly. He has to be American.

NG: I kept thinking about A Serious Man, watching Uncut Gems. The films seem like inverses of each other, even though they have the same fundamental structure: a Jew suffers. When Ratner gets a call from his doctor about the colonoscopy, but he’s totally fine, that’s the opposite of the way A Serious Man ends, when the doctor calls Gopnik with unspecified but we assume fatal news, set alongside the tornado approaching his son, which makes it all seem very Book of Job. Gopnik’s suffering feels fated, generational, and linked to the divine. But God isn’t out to get Ratner. He brings all his suffering on himself, through his own decisions. Isn’t that a kind of response to the idea of the Jews’ chosenness? Like I said, we enter the main action of the film through Ratner’s bowels, but even the fact that his colon is fine is a kind of break from Jewish history. He doesn’t suffer as part of a lineage of suffering. He’s just a fuckup.

AMB: There’s an allegory here for a kind of dawning revelation for many Americans over the past few years—including for many of us on the left—that we are just one shitty country among many, and that this is what it means to be in a declining empire. We are not the prime mover, we are not a city on a hill, and that means that we no longer have as much terrible agency as we did. I think that is what is happening to the figure of the Jew in this movie. He is recognizably Jewish, like the US remains recognizably the US, but he’s not at the leading edge of the zeitgeist or anything. He represents something very specific, but that’s also merely itself.

AA: I still think he does have to be a Jew, to embody that mix of precarity and maneuverability at the same time. He doesn’t have to go after all of this crazy stuff. He’s got his store. Every single moment you’re like, “You could just stop. You could just walk away, you never had to do any of this.” An Israeli once told me that the main motivation of Israelis is not to be a freier, a sucker, not to let anyone take advantage of you. You’re not going to screw me, I’m going to get a leg up. It comes from a feeling of precarity, but it ends up in a space of hyper-compensation.

JP: Insecurity plus power.

AA: Insecurity plus power, exactly. That, to me, isn’t just American. It’s specific. White enough to have access, with this immigrant hustler mentality.

AMB: The question that everyone had about this movie before it even came out is whether it’s antisemitic to make a movie about a crooked Jewish diamond dealer. The assumption built into that question is that the diamond dealer is a symbol of the wealthy Jew. But what we see in this movie is that he’s a symbol of the working-class Jew, the desperate Jew. Maybe he’s not meaningfully working-class in terms of his place in the American economy, but he is culturally marked as working-class, and that is what’s actually embarrassing about it.

AA: He reminds me of my immigrant father, majorly. So is it because they’re first-generation, or is it because they’re crazy? Or are those the same thing?

JP: He’s “a crazy-ass Jew.”

AA: I want to move on to talking about the women, because this is actually the oldest trope, to have a Jewish wife who treats you with contempt, and a shiksa girlfriend who worships you.

NG: I was moved, despite myself, by the moment when she shows him the tattoo she got of his name, and he’s like, “Now we can’t be buried together.” It felt like a sincere moment that also winkingly acknowledged the way he’s living out a trope.

JP: That relationship to me is the most Rothian piece of this.

AA: Where he’s sexting with her from the closet? I mean, that’s very Roth.

AMB: That scene was actually kind of hot, which was disturbing.

AA: It’s a really important scene. Until that moment, you don’t know if she has really bought into him or if it’s about something else.

AMB: Exactly.

AA: You’re kind of like, is she just taking advantage of him for this apartment? You think that scene is going to go in a way where she’s betraying him, she’s with someone or whatever, but actually she’s so serious. She needs to go get ready for him because he’s had a big day, and she’s wearing the thing and she has this teacher’s pet desire to please. That’s where it fully steps into that trope, of leaving your shrew Jewish wife, who’s smart and sees you for what you are.

AMB: He says, “Are you wet?” She says yes, and you think she’s lying, but then she’s touching herself. It’s amazing: in that moment there’s this female gaze thing that happens, where you’re suddenly seeing him through her eyes, and that is the one moment in which he can become eroticized, because she’s so hot. And that was disturbing both because he’s such a gross character, and just because it’s Adam Sandler playing Adam Sandler.

JP: That’s what I thought was so brilliant about his casting: he’s still being Adam Sandler. That shit with Garnett where he’s like, “Garnett, a stone. A stone for a stone.” That’s a super dumb, Adam Sandler-level observation. There’s a real naturalness to Sandler’s character becoming Ratner, in all of its anxious joke-making. It reminds me of myself in summer camp, where it’s very important that you’re funny. You’re taught to make value that way. 

AA: It’s needy.

JP: More than that: It’s anxious, it’s fearful. With Ratner, it reframes all of those Sandler mannerisms in a way that makes them vaguely creepy, threatening, and pathetic. I kept waiting for Ratner himself to explode into violence, to lash out, but the only person who Ratner persecutes is Ratner.

AA: And the Weeknd.

JP: Oh, and The Weeknd, of course, over his shiksa girlfriend.

DK: His whole schtick—in his dealings with his wife and kids, his mistress, and everyone he’s trying to do business with or not get killed by—is this incredibly overpowering need to be loved and believed. “I’ve got this, I’ve got this. Let me have this.” The reason the movie is so nerve-wracking is that he puts on such a forceful performance of that again and again. And it keeps working, until it finally doesn’t.

It’s this very Jewish survivor’s instinct—just begging people to give him a chance, to let him be useful, to trust him for just a little bit longer, even though he’s manifestly not trustworthy. It’s not insincere, I think he always believes it in the moment. When he tells his wife that his girlfriend is trash and he still wants to be with her, I don’t think he’s lying. At that moment, that feels true to him.

AMB: That moment is the most devastating scene in the movie because of the way Idina Menzel responds: “You are the most annoying person I have ever met.”

AA: You’re totally with her, too.

AMB: Right, it’s so devastating because it’s an objective statement. It’s a description of the movie that you’re watching—and indeed a description of Adam Sandler, and of the viewers’ experience of this person’s existence. 

This is why the movie is so anxiety-provoking. In a normal mob movie, Ratner would be the classic side character, the schlemiel who is never at the center of events. He would die early on, while he’s carrying a message or something.

JP: He’s like Fredo.

AMB: Exactly, it’s an entire movie where Fredo is at the center. In the canonical version of a mob movie, there’s pacing. There are moments of insane frenetic energy, and then there are calm moments. The guy gets to go on vacation and takes pleasure in his material wealth and enjoys fucking. Tony Soprano goes to therapy, right? This guy is not going to therapy. 

When you center Fredo, all he is experiencing is the pure, manic drive to keep up with the flow of events, and that is his entire life. It’s pretty unusual to structure a movie that way, to never have a pause. It’s unfamiliar as film and familiar as life, and is actually pretty scary.

DK: Ratner doesn’t live to see it, but if he did, he would’ve voted for Trump, right?

JP: Totally a Trump guy.

AMB: Trump guy for sure, yeah.

DK: So would every white male character in this movie, because they’re all just kind of amoral dealmakers.

NG: Right. The whole framework of the movie is ultimately Trumpian. “This is how I win” could be a Trump line.

DK: Did you guys like the movie?

JP: Eighteen out of 10.

DK: Probably that should be our kicker, Jacob saying 18 out of 10.

AA: He doesn’t speak for all of us.

JP: Actually, I do.