Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights (2002), the only animated movie about Hanukkah as far as I know, was an ethnic celebration like no other that a Jewish Hollywood star has dared. Sandler’s ethnic identification drives the comic charm in most of his movies. It was outrageous in Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2000) and a fount of genius in his best films, Spanglish (2004) and Jack and Jill (2011). Yet that haimish quality has made him a target of vicious hipster snark.
Not even Davey Stone, the alcoholic with a criminal record whom Sandler voiced (and redeemed) in Eight Crazy Nights, could overcome the hipster shame that ex-SNL regular Sandler has endured. (Ridiculed out of theatrical film culture, Sandler sought refuge in the non-cinematic Netflix universe.) Now, Sandler’s gone full criminal, playing a Jewish scoundrel (goniff) in Uncut Gems, and so he has received the wildest, most unconvincing praise of his career. The film is an ironic box-office hit; it pleases hipsters but disappoints Sandler’s truest fans.
As Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler always on the lookout for a big score, Sandler is completely unprepossessing — an anti-mensch. Ratner is a walking mugshot, with an ugly goatee and desperately selfish ways. He betrays both his avaricious wife (Idina Menzel) and his slutty mistress (Julia Fox) and then attempts outwitting the unsavory sorts who patronize his Diamond District emporium on 47th Street. (That’s where a Holocaust survivor encountered a Nazi doctor in John Schlesinger and William Goldman’s shameless, faux-ethnic Marathon Man.) These Uncut Gem lowlifes are black athletes and Russian mobsters — so much for the “diversity” of Sandler’s genial Grown Ups franchise.
Benny and Josh Safdie, the film’s writing-directing team, use hipster liberalism to trace Ratner’s craven efforts at selling a black opal from an Ethiopian mining outfit to a black sports celebrity. Their opening segues from close-up views of African economic exploitation to Ratner’s colonoscopy. Wow! Similarities to James Toback’s script for The Gambler (1974), in which an American Jewish prince involves himself in black exploitation, suggests both an absurdist remake and a conflicted legacy.
Judging by the circumcision joke implied in their title, the Safdie brothers reach beyond Toback’s sexual-racial impudence, back to the same, age-old envy and resentment of the black-sexual-prowess myth that obsessed Norman Mailer in his famous 1958 essay “The White Negro.” Yet, by indulging Ratner’s outlawry, a Jewish version of urban insolence, Uncut Gems barely touches the ethnic antagonism that the post-hip-hop generation has suppressed. (LaKeith Stanfield, The Weeknd, and Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett are cast as stereotypical Negro antagonists.)
As in 2018’s Good Time, the Safdie brothers exult in underworld grit with rough, seemingly realistic, low-fi technique. Uncut Gems looks deliberately unpolished, like a pop record made irritating by its cacophonous stylization. (Nightclub and gunplay scenes are the worst.) The Safdie brothers are celebrated as innovators, but here’s the truth: Uncut Gems pretends to be clever and ethnically bold, but it isn’t as clever as Eight Crazy Nights — or Vampire Weekend’s “Unbearably White,” in which Ezra Koenig responds to accusations of ethnic and class privilege by taunting the way political correctness misconstrues reality and identity.
In Uncut Gems the Safdies share an ethnic quandary similar to preppy Vampire Weekend’s, but they take a tedious route through the confusions of Ratner/Sandler’s social identity and then settle for illicit thrills. Sandler has made better films than this one, confronting the Jewish chagrin of Hollywood’s mainstream and coming up with honest humanism: Little Nicky, Spanglish, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Jack and Jill, The Cobbler. Sandler’s undignified role in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories disguised self-reproach as sophistication. It betrayed the ethnic doubts that Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow worked to dispel.
Adam “Ad Roc” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys toyed with the same ethnic ambivalence as Uncut Gems when performing as both clown and hipster — a derivation of the Jerry Lewis genius-doofus and a model for Sandler’s artistic pursuit. If Jerry Lewis had played Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he might have gotten the same misguided praise that Sandler has for going against his strengths and misrepresenting his anxieties.
Mailer once wrote that the last thing he wanted was to be thought of “as a nice Jewish boy.” Uncut Gems seems animated by that same dread. The Safdie brothers traipse through an urban underworld of wastrels, feckless blacks and Jews — thugs and criminals who taunt and humiliate one another. They rope mass-entertainer Sandler into their craziness (mishegas). The film imitates movie badassery (specifically Scorsese’s nerd nightmares The King of Comedy and After Hours), but its scenes of blatant mischief don’t work out the existential, psychological dilemmas that Mailer explored with audacity and frankness.
Instead, the Safdies’ faux realism and boastful trashiness recall Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, an approach that trivializes the Jewish Prince predicament rather than tacke it — as in the buoyant yet weighty Vampire Weekend song “Harmony Hall,” in which Ezra Koenig confesses, “A nervous heart that beats like a young pretender’s / beneath these velvet gloves I hide the shameful crooked hands of the moneylender / cuz I still remember.”
On his own Sandler meets such ethnic worries and transcends them in original comic fashion. Jack and Jill, Spanglish, and Chuck and Larry displayed extraordinary ethical and ethnic wit that the Safdies cannot match. Uncut Gems brazenly presents a son of Shylock, yet the film rides only the surface of ethnic existentialism, the multicultural American anguish that was set out with zest and brilliance in Next Day Air (2009), the underrated black urban thriller-comedy about sons of slaves.
Uncut Gems diminishes one of the richest comic sensibilities in modern cinema. It turns Sandler, the smartass who always chooses family and friendship over streetwise selfishness, into an icon of grungy nihilism. The Safdie brothers have reinvented nice Jewish boy Sandler as Johnny Depp.