Sketch & Study: ‘Uncut Gems’

Sketch & Study is the short and long of how one goes from watching to writing about films. Michelle Wang watches a film and takes stock of exactly how she feels, no holds barred, right after watching the film then, a few hours or days later, mulls over its layers.

SKETCH

cacophony. voices over voices. fucking this fucking that fucking this that. who’s talking to who?? say it with a real new yawker accent this time – who’s talking to who????????? the girls are bitches and honeys but she’s feisty and fiery and she’s sugar and sweet at the same time and she knows she’s got it. fuck this fuck you fuck who!!!?? and after all that, who’s on the floor? who’s bleeding? how many people in the room at one time? it’s so crowded and the camera’s swiveling there’s always so many voices. ass on the line all the time cutting it too fine and he won’t slow down doesn’t want to he never stops talking if he’s not doing a deal with you he’s calling somebody else to do another deal then walking into another building and a new conversation goes and then the old one begins again and he’s walking again back on the phone in the car as the door slams on his way the deals don’t wait 

STUDY

[pace]

The last thing you should try to do when watching Uncut Gems (2019) is surface for air. This is a terribly, perfectly paced film exactly calibrated to the rhythm of a panic attack. The main character, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) lives out his life at a frantic tempo — an internal rhythm that jaggedly corresponds to the film’s external timeline: both ticking timebombs. To briefly summarise: Howard is a New York City jeweller, constantly hustling for the next big deal. A chain of precarious bets, involving a rare, uncut Ethiopian opal, a Kevin Garnett Championship ring, and a Boston Celtics basketball game, lead him on a bewildering high wire act. 

[sound]

Erratically pulsing through the bloodlines of Uncut Gems is its crazy soundscape. In the first five minutes, we have journeyed from the clamour of opal miners carrying out a bloody evacuation to the visceral insides of Howard’s colonoscopy narrated by his doctor — all the while accompanied by the glittery and distorted electronica of musician Daniel Lopatin, better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. There’s no break either — “where the fuck are you man?” is the first line we hear spoken to Howard. Then there’s the blaring door buzzer and entry bell ‘ding’ of Howard’s jewellery shop, KMH Gems and Jewelry, that sounds repeatedly through the film. Conversations are layered upon conversations. And core to the cacophonous effect is Adam Sandler’s abrasive Bronx accent and ceaseless chatter. His character’s voice is a part of the film’s soundtrack: a nasal and explosive instrument.  

[Howard]

Not only is Sandler’s constant chatter as Howard Ratner pervasive and unforgettable, but so too is the rest of the character he portrays. Howard careens between his numerous business deals as he does his relationships, speeding back and forth between his wife’s apartment — with whom he is going through a divorce — and the apartment where he lives with his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox). In one scene, he tries to congratulate his teenage daughter and speak amicably with his wife at their apartment, before going to see Julia on the pretext of a business meeting. Everyone’s eyes roll (except for his). Everyone knows that his family man schtick is a failed act, and yet he continues to try. He continues, futilely, to seek their validation and love. He craves it. But they merely roll their eyes. Which is understandable — Howard is needy, explosive, and volatile — a frustrating character to follow even for two hours. What’s that? Another fragile male ego disguised as the macho man about town? It’s not an atypical trope that Howard fills, but it is played with memorable aplomb by Adam Sandler. Howard is usually on the verge of fucking up, which he quite often does, but he scrambles again at every opportunity with an almost naïve and fresh-eyed hunger that is hard not to get swept up in. His frenetic lifestyle and personality are incredibly annoying and yet thrilling to follow. It’s a role written for him: no one else could have made such an unlovable character so lovable. Uncut Gems needs Adam Sandler, like Adam Sandler needed Uncut Gems. As a fan on Rotten Tomatoes has said, “Adam Sandler reprises his real-life role as an actual actor”.  

[Julia and Dinah] 

And whose arms does Howard’s character fall into? Whose voice is also very prominent and at times annoying, throughout the film? In other words, who is Howard’s equal in Uncut Gems? It’s Julia, the girlfriend, played by Fox in her breakout role. The way in which Julia occupies her role as the ‘other woman’ plays with the generic positionings of the main female character in the masculine genre of an action thriller. Take any movie from the James Bond, Oceans or Jason Bourne franchises as a base template for what the main female counterpart looks like: usually not the wife, but that ‘other woman’, who is sexy, hot, wild. Oh, and if she has brains to boot, that’s just an added bonus. 

Julia as generic positioning, is the other woman. She wields her sexuality over men like Howard. But she is more than this. Uncut Gems peels the sultry façade away, letting her rough edges shine through. Fox plays the sexy girlfriend with gritty nuance: self-assured but self-conscious, wide-eyed but worldly. Her sexuality is her hustle and she’s extremely self-aware about it. The film shows that her buttering up and smooth talking The Weeknd, amongst others, and making deals with men in dark corners — is the same as Howard’s job. By showing how the two main characters — one male, one female — hustle equally on the streets, hanker for each other’s emotional support, and couch their vulnerabilities in bravado, Uncut Gems provokes a subtle but unequal reflection. It is because the film is so blasé about Julia and Howard as peers that one is compelled to contemplate why this is not more often the case in popular culture. 

All the blockbuster movie series aforementioned rely on a money-making equation involving a sexy female actress who is ultimately disempowered alongside the main male character as the mere ‘love interest’. At the other end of the spectrum, there are films like Hustlers (2019) that attempt to subvert this imagery and take control of it, but still rely on amplifying the very same notion that sex(y women) sells. Or, even when these movies try to reverse the gender roles such as in Ocean’s Eight (2018) or the all-female Ghostbusters (2016), the female characters are ironically disempowered as these reboots require women to relive men’s stories instead of creating their own, a point well-expressed in Amanda Hess’ New York Times article.

In this oversaturated cultural landscape that continuously propagates the principle that femininity equals sexy equals money, Uncut Gems’ Julia is a refreshingly imperfect paradox. Her and Howard’s piecemeal love story pits their similarities and differences in stark synergy so that their characters survive, and at times thrive, together, as two flawed humans.

But then, does that mean the archetype of the wife is dowdy, sexually undesirable, and bitter? Usually. In Uncut Gems, Howard’s estranged wife, Dinah Ratner (Idina Menzel), fulfills these clichés to an extent – but she is still an assertive and strong woman. Her character is limited, however: beyond a few dour family scenes with Howard where she rolls her eyes at him or tells him to get out, she has much less to say than Julia. The film does an incredible job shaping its two main characters, but other characters such as Dinah fade into the background, though  she would have been an interesting female archetype for the Safdie brothers to reconceptualise. Even one or two more glimpses beneath Dinah’s embittered façade would give her personality more dimensions and take advantage of Menzel’s sharp presence. 

[diagnosis] 

There is no doubt that the Safdie brothers, in collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never, have developed a unique cinematic style punctuated by their mesmeric pacing, harsh fluorescent lighting, and jittery electronica. But what distinguishes this film most from its predecessor, Good Time (2017), another action thriller, is the excellent scripting and casting of Howard Ratner and Julia. Their idiosyncratic traits  shine through the generic figures that they are cast in; they are the flawed and lovable humans at the heart of the film’s thickening plot. This is the Safdie brothers’ most provocative film yet — that is, when you get a chance to surface for air. 

Uncut Gems is now streaming on Netflix.

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Michelle Wang writes, dreams and eats in Sydney. That’s pretty much it aside from voraciously consuming most things with subtitles or featuring Adam Driver. 

Michelle Wang