Though the title may be a misleading circumcision innuendo, I’m here to talk about a movie. This is not spoiler-free. You have been warned.
It’s 2012. The break between fourth period and fifth is a little longer because the teacher for your next class has to walk a little further to get to your classroom. You’re sitting crowded around someone’s laptop; that Carl kid, the only one with a Macbook. You and a handful of other 14-year-olds are watching the game highlights for the night’s previous Celtics-Sixers game.
You reconsider everything you’ve ever known about the Eastern Conference. As a Rockets fan brought up in a post-Kobe Lakers household, you never paid much attention to the East Coast. But boy, that Kevin Garnett sure can play. Life is good.
Cut to: 7 years later. You are anxiously waiting for the reveal of the Surprise Film at the London Film Festival. You’re sitting next to one of your closest friends, who is just as skeptical about the film you’ve predicted to be screened but have come dressed up thematically for it anyway. Two producer-type people introduce the film, they say the filmmakers can’t come but have left you a video message. And just like that, on the screen inside that behemoth Odeon, they appear: the Safdie Brothers, Adam Sandler, and a Diamond District Jeweller whose son is in the film. They apologize for not being able to make it, but say they apparently have something coming our way. The film is Uncut Gems. And it was the best two hours and fifteen minutes of your life.
I know nothing about anything on 78th street, or where the money goes when people gamble; nor am I cheating on my wife with perhaps the most stunning woman ever captured on film (Julia Fox), but Uncut Gems has managed to resonate with not just me, but with legions of fans all over the internet.
We’re all in agreement, the sure-as-all-hell kind of agreement that this film is magnificent. A once-in-a-generation type feat. I can imagine, if the planet survives for that long, that my hypothetical children will come home from their Film Studies class to ask me: “Mom, have you heard of Uncut Gems? It’s this really awesome old movie they showed in class today.” I’ll respond with a silent shit, am I really that old? and swiftly pull out a Diamond Furby valued at $250 dollars that I probably bought for more on eBay later on in my life. I’ll say to them: “I was 21 when that came out. Saw it on the big screen.” And they’ll look at me in awe that I was alive for when Hunter thee Harris first tweeted about how “her gems were UNCUT!” There’s something about this film that’s so… personal. In every sense of the word.
For those of you that haven’t seen it, Uncut Gems follows the trials and tribulations of Diamond District jeweler and gambling addict Howard “howiebling” Ratner. Whilst catering to NBA Star Kevin Garnett, he receives a package he has anticipated for over a year. Said package is a cluster of black opals from Ethiopia, the titular Uncut Gem, and immediately Garnett becomes enamored with it. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The script itself was ten years in the making, the Safdies took their sweet time getting all the right pieces together and drew from stories their father told them about people he knew. Those guys live, breathe, and are this New York you see before you.
Funny how quintessentially New York this film is, but have a former Celtic play a leading role. We’ll get to that in a second, however Kevin Garnett is in fact the best actor in the NBA. No printer, just fax.
Let’s talk about Howie. We can’t not talk about Howie. We Need To Talk About Howie (2022); Lynne Ramsay co-writes this true-crime thriller about the death of Howard Ratner. I’m getting ahead of myself. (Though I would love a sequel, I’m not sure the filmmakers would be very inclined to expand the @howiebling cinematic universe.) Every interview I’ve come across about the film compares the titular gem to Howard himself; a beautiful, complex, and priceless jewel that’s a little rough around the edges and often misunderstood. Howard Ratner represents my fears, externalized. The fear of trusting yourself almost completely, and to have things fuck themselves in the ass over and over. It’s thinking you can get away with something, and just as you’re about to: you don’t.
There’s a scene after Howie gets beat in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza (maybe it’s a nod to Sandler’s SNL years, maybe I’m reaching; who cares) and he storms into KMH Gems agitated and distraught. He tells an employee on the floor to send everyone home, he doesn’t want to work. Oh, to be Howard. Julia (Julia Fox) enters his flurry of emotion; he screams how nothing he has ever done is going right. To quote the man himself: “I’m so sad, I’m so fucked up.” But Julia is there, in all her freshly tatted glory, to comfort him. To love him. It’s sweet and tender, and immediately the film switches gears again. That’s Uncut Gems. Forget about any rugs you’re standing on, they’re being pulled left and right. But with good reason.
Not long after that sequence, Howard is in better spirits, as he’s just received news that Kevin Garnett is still interested in the gem. Garnett comes by his office and the two have a “mano a mano”. I think Garnett is the first person throughout the entire film that cuts straight to the chase with Howie, and actually gets to him. Doesn’t give him the run around, isn’t punching him in the face, or telling him to fuck off. It must be the hardest task to play yourself in a film, especially a younger version of yourself under so much scrutiny. Although his involvement in the film was through player availability, I’m actually quite relieved that it wasn’t Joel Embiid or Amare Stoudemire at the helm. I don’t think they could’ve given us the same kind of sincerity you get from Garnett. Plus, his name is a gem, so it all works out. Howie explains to Kevin how he just has to gamble everything he has on him, this gem is going to give him the best game. And it does. And of course, it doesn’t go the way Howie wanted it to. But I guess, in some way, the way he thought it might.
As the Celtics game draws to a close, and Howie lets Arno and his Goons in, he gets popped. Shot in the face. His death elicited the most unison gasp I’ve ever heard a cinema audience take. Since rewatching Gems, it hurts me, even more, to see Howie go. The part of him that wants to win, needs to win no matter the cost paid its final price.
The thing that really got me with this film, was the decision to set it in 2012 and the commitment to bring 2012 back on screen. Every little detail hit my middle school nostalgia harder than any rerun of American Dragon could. The music was my favourite part. If you were 14 in 2012, you probably devoured good kid, m.A.A.d city when it came out. You probably bootlegged copies of Trilogy from Mediafire via DatPiff, or listened to the whole thing in a single YouTube video. You were alive with ears connected to a heart when Rich Homie Quan came out with Type of Way. (Though that did come out in 2013, if I’m not mistaken, but c’est la vie. Great song, nonetheless). Swimming Pools (Drank) comes in just as Howard and The Weeknd (also playing himself) start beating the fuck out of each other. Talk about resurfacing his swimming pool, huh, Arno?
Accompanied by Daniel Lopatin’s exquisite score, and an even more insane landscape of sound design than Good Time (2017) the Safdies pull you in and keep you there. It’s a love letter to the little ninth grader that first got into hip hop and basketball because all the boys she had a crush on were into hip-hop and basketball. And for that, I am forever grateful.
I also had a middle school phobia of Furbies. Not sure why, but bedazzle ’em in a couple of diamonds and that phobia has been indubitably squandered.
Darius Khondji is some type of God, I swear. The cinematography contributes just as much as the performances, music, and production design to Uncut Gems‘ relentlessness. Idina Menzel and Julia Fox embody a ferocity I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life. Lakeith Stanfield practically glimmers throughout this entire ordeal. Also, the first AD for this film was the second AD for Showgirls, and I think I was sorta destined to watch Uncut Gems? Two films about the dangers of excess, celebrating said excess visually, what more could I ask for?
This is one of my favourite films of the year, if not my favourite, and definitely one of my favourite films ever.
What is there left to say about the cutting, or rather un-cutting of one’s gems? It is no surprise that a film about a gem that consumes its beholder has the same effect it has on its viewers. Did that make sense? I hope it did. Watch Uncut Gems.
Uncut Gems will be released on Netflix worldwide on January 31st, 2020.