I’ve watched Uncut Gems a number of times, and each has been a different experience. Sometimes I’ve been with one friend or two. A couple of times I’ve been stoned. Once I was with my parents, the two of them gripping the edges of their seats, my mom turning to look at me and whispering, pained and more than once, “That man really needs to take a vacation.” The mileage varies per person, and friends I’ve expected to like it hated it while others who don’t watch movies very often have been utterly enraptured. I’ve also gone to see it by myself, and on one occasion I had a panic attack. But the movie is always the same each time, and that’s why I keep coming back — to the dismay, horror, and bewilderment of those closest to me.
We enter through the Welo mines of Ethiopia. The sparkling swell of the “The Ballad of Howie Bling” leads us on a journey through a precious black opal that transforms into, of all things, a colonoscopy. Then, a brief glimpse at Howard Ratner’s disordered day-to-day life commences. We see him interact with the employees at his shop, KMH Jewelers. We witness his fraught but passionate relationship with his employee/mistress-turned girlfriend Julia. We watch him place two ill-advised bets, pawn an expensive ring that doesn’t belong to him, and get roughed up by the men he owes a debt to. We bear witness to his crumbling marriage and his mostly lukewarm relationship with his two sons. It’s an Odyssean voyage through one man’s twenty-four hours of life, a meticulously choreographed dance meant to pull you into Howard’s chaos like everyone else is in the film. The first time, it’s disorienting. The second time, it’s beautiful. Each time after that, it’s like watching a ballet.
A friend recently texted me to say, “I know you like Uncut Gems a lot, but that movie is so stressful. How can you keep watching it?” It’s true, that since the film’s release only five months ago, I have seen the movie seven times. With family, friends, by myself, or in my living room, I have forced myself and others to sit through Howard Ratner’s Wild Ride. Last month, during lockdown, I sat down for watch number six as my roommate hung out, uninvolved, in the armchair adjacent to me, focused on his laptop but looking up every now and then to check on the progress of the film I’d already put him through once before. Earlier in the evening, when I told him that I was going to be watching Uncut Gems again, he was flabbergasted. He didn’t even know about the four other occasions.
Uncut Gems follows an impulsive man named Howard Ratner — a rich, Jewish jeweler played by Adam Sandler at, arguably, his best — who works in New York City’s Diamond District and only cares about two things: money and the NBA. He dresses in comical dusters and Gucci shirts and rimless glasses like a money-grubbing cartoon character, a more fashionable Scrooge McDuck archetype. When he’s not getting harassed by his brother-in-law’s goons for the cash he still owes or getting into squabbles with the equally erratic Julia (Julia Fox) or with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), he’s placing bets on basketball games or just generally being careless with his money.
The plot revolves around Howard getting into one bad situation to the next – mostly centered around his acquisition of a rare, Ethiopian black opal. He barely crawls his way out each time and never truly learns from his mistakes, until things escalate to the breaking point of the be-all and end-all gamble. Howard Ratner (affectionately called “Howie Bling” by many) wants to make as much money as possible, but he wants to do it in the riskiest way possible. He doesn’t want to accumulate wealth without the thrill. He lives for the masochistic pleasure.
The film is notoriously relentless in its levels of anxiety and insanity, hardly letting up once during its daunting two-hour-plus runtime for the audience to breathe. And when it does, the pause only serves as an ominous prelude for what’s to come: the next wrong decision; the next bad bet, the next word out-of-place that hurls Howie Bling into another choose-your-own-adventure of the worst possible scenario. There are no true moments of peace in Uncut Gems because there is no such thing for Howard Ratner. Even when we watch the light leave Howard’s eyes at the very tragic end of the film, disarray and bedlam still ensue in his wake – within the scene, out of the scene, and in scenes that will never come to pass. Even in death, the consequences of Howie Bling’s gluttonous actions are a force to be reckoned with.
Of course, this is not entirely dissimilar from writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s other projects. From 2009’s handheld-filmed Daddy Longlegs to 2017’s Robert Pattinson-led Good Time, it’s clear that the Safdie brothers are interested in exhausting you with morally questionable leading characters seemingly only capable of making the wrong decisions, paving the way for solvable situations which instead escalate ad infinitum. But in real life, people make the wrong decisions. They make them again and again, and there is no movie magic to rectify them with a heartwarming denouement. This doesn’t always lead to very serene movie-watching, but there is a sense of joy and excitement in being strung along, helplessly, by deplorable protagonists who only aim to discomfort you. Especially a character with as much enviable charisma as Howie Bling. Is discomfort any less of a thrill than being scared? Howard’s world is a kind of horror movie all on its own.
Discomfort is not the only reason to find masochistic pleasure in revisiting Uncut Gems, however. While the first watch of Uncut Gems might feel like a sensory overload, repeated viewings not only alleviate anxiety over what might happen next, but they give way for appreciation for the meticulous details possibly missed while you were monitoring your rising blood pressure.
Every frame of the film bears new fruit, new recognition for an as yet underappreciated line read (my current one: “You gotta shut that door; it’s KG, eh?”) or offhanded comment peppered into the script to bring life to KMH Jewelers. Customers and employees chatter among themselves, talking over one another so you can’t discern what’s even being said. Howard’s attention is caught between his employees and his brother-in-law’s goons, Arno and Nico, waiting to lay into him just off-screen. Every moment in KMH is like you’re in there yourself. Fellow fan Robert Franco, who has seen the movie five times, reflects that “only after multiple viewings would you pick up on Arno’s goon saying to Howie, ‘You’re dead, fucker,’ in the very beginning. Or the fact that there’s a Mohegan Sun commercial on the TV when Howie’s watching the first Celtics game. There are so many pieces and parts to making the film work, and you have to see it multiple times to pick up on them.”
But the world of Howie Bling is much more than that of a thriller or even a horror movie. Its greatest strength lies in the fact that it’s a little bit of everything. “It’s a clusterfuck of genres,” reflects Film School Rejects’ own Luke Hicks, who has also seen the movie seven times, “refusing tight categorization or easy interpretation, much like the characters, who don’t fall into typical boxes. Howard isn’t a hero. Julia isn’t a damsel. And when it does draw more conventional characters, it’s with someone like Phil, who ends up being such an original take on the concept of a villain that he becomes one of the most terrifying examples of one in film history.”
Thus, led by a staggering showing from Sandler, the film showcases memorable performances not just from seasoned actors like Eric Bogosian, who plays Arno, but from first-timers like New York City socialite Julia Fox and local, non-actors that the Safdie brothers met by chance. One of Arno’s heavies, Phil, played by Keith Williams Richards, was simply discovered on the streets of New York by Uncut Gems’ casting scout Michele Mansoor and turns in an unbelievably chilling interpretation of the typical hired henchman. And then, of course, is the all-timer performance from basketball legend Kevin Garnett, whose screen debut comes off just as naturally as Lakeith Stanfield in his role as Demany, an exhaustingly unreliable cohort of both Howard and KG. It’s the guidance and trust that the Safdies put, not just into a long-time comic actor like Sandler to carry a film as a scatter-brained, reprehensible antihero, but into their hodgepodge of acting talents to get across-the-board great performances from everyone. From comedy actors to party girls, basketball players, rappers, and people they find on the street, the Safdies’ world feels undeniably lived in.
The film itself ends up bearing resemblance to the much-coveted black opal that Howard receives at the start of the film, after eighteen long months of waiting. The titular gem’s influence glistens throughout the colorful story, from the multifaceted cast to the glimmering cinematography by Darius Khondji, which makes the entire film look and feel like the inside of a precious stone. It’s also a film rich in Jewish culture — depicting the community of Jews in the Diamond District and the deeply traditioned Passover celebration — while disavowing the widely-utilized portrayal of Jewish nebbishness in favor of a cutthroat gangster. Then there’s the synth-drenched score courtesy of composer Daniel Lopatin, which hums and pulsates, and sparkles just as much as Howard’s gem, transporting much of the film into the realm of the fantastical despite being very much grounded in reality – or, is it? Sometimes the film is a crime drama. Other times, it’s a romance. And other times, it’s even a comedy, with laugh-out-loud moments, like when Howard is clumsily sexting Julia secretly from inside their apartment before jumping out to surprise her.
There are moments of the surreal as well, like Howard’s eyes, which eagle-eyed fans noticed inexplicably shrink after he says he’s “gonna cum” to his employee, Yussi, out of euphoria over receiving his opal (attributed, perhaps only facetiously, by the Safdies to Howard being momentarily possessed). Or, in Kevin Garnett’s mysterious, spiritual connection to the gem, which guides him to basketball victory while it’s in his possession and causes him to crack without it. That’s the beauty of Uncut Gems: it can’t be defined by genre; it doesn’t belong in a box. It transcends expectations of characters and narrative, fueling an addiction to being caught up in this singular world, like Howard’s addiction to placing bets. “That’s definitely the overarching word I would use to describe Uncut Gems: singular,” says Luke Hicks. “Everything about it is risky and original, albeit with an incredible sense of control from the Safdies throughout.”
Bejeweled Furbies, broken bones, beating up The Weeknd and a Billy Joel needle drop — there are countless moving parts that make Uncut Gems an incredibly unique experience. That’s what it all comes down to, and why I and others keep coming back. Characters like Cosmo Vittelli of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Sandler’s own Barry Egan of Punk-Drunk Love paved the way for Howard Ratner to come to fruition, but Howard Ratner stands alone, and so does the chaos of his universe. How many films start off by looking through the inside of the main character’s colon? Watching Uncut Gems is like chasing a high; each viewing is a reminder of what the medium of film can do for us, mentally, emotionally, physically. Disorienting us when the camera swerves to and fro as bedlam ensues in KMH over the faulty door magnet, or the suffocation of being trapped in the same car as Howard by Arno and his fuming men. Or patiently following Julia’s every step as she reels from a public feud with Howard, a chorus of operatic voices caroling over her walk of shame. Or captivating us, as an impassioned Howard explains to Kevin Garnett what it means for him to place a bet, which bears historical context to Howard’s Jewish heritage. He’s not an athlete, this is how he wins.
Only part of the fun comes from the film’s exhaustion and discomfort, in its ability to knock the wind out of you and leave you yearning for more. Most of the fun of Uncut Gems comes from the fact that this world doesn’t exist anywhere else. This is a world wholly defined by Howie Bling, and there is no one else quite like Howie Bling.