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The Magical Thinking of Uncut Gems, the Moronic Thinking of the New York Times

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What Can We Keep?

This was before our president extrajudicially murdered a top leader of the Iranian military so you would be forgiven for forgetting about it already, but right before the end of the year, the New York Times’ top right-wing bloviator Bret Stephens published “The Secret Of Jewish Genius,” an especially specious column which argued that Ashkenazi Jews were just, well, better than the rest of us (or something?)—and he cited a white supremacist to make that point. There was some controversy and a pathetic “correction” from the Times where Stephens’ awful opinion was gently rewritten along with an implication from editors that readers out there were apparently too dumb to understand Stephens’ terrible point. 

Stephens’ column was published as the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems spread to theaters all around the country, and the cacophonous, occasionally magical movie is, among many things, an uncouth rejoinder to this sort of staid supremacism. All about gambling, Jewishness, Blackness, basketball, and the death drive, Uncut Gems unravels the real, perceived, and always fraught connections between the oppressed, with Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a touched, Jewish jeweler, gambler, and fast-talker as its nexus point, stomping through the Diamond District on his cell phone screaming “fuck” the whole time, representing centuries of once necessary scamming and flamming adrift in a milieu where everyone’s trying to get one over on somebody.

The plot: Ratner buys a rare black opal found by Ethiopian Jews (he learned of it watching the History Channel), sneaks it into the US in a fish, dangles it in front of the face of superstitious NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) when a blinged-out Furby chain he tries to sell him doesn’t catch his eye, and lets Garnett hold onto it for some crucial playoff games because Garnett plays better when it is in his possession. This sets off a series of ballsy bets from Ratner, in insurmountable debt, that hinge on Garnett’s success, leading to a franchise of tragicomic events that get Ratner out of debt and drop him deeper in it depending on the day.

Uncut Gems mixes frisky documentary style and arch, Tumblr-y specificity for design and clothes and the sound mix, alchemizing real and the “real,” into something grandiose and yet grounded. I like “deep but cheesy,” a phrase Josh Safdie used to refer to Gigi D’Agostino’s ‎“L’Amour Toujours”—prominently featured in Uncut Gems—and meant it in the best way (like “laughing but very serious”). This is a small movie—a few days in the life of a schlemiel—framed by big movie ideas and a sort of cosmic sense of connectedness: the magical thinking muscle Ratner has built up is shared by the movie’s other non-European-American characters, such as Garnett, fake Rollie-seller and jewelry plug Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), or even Arno (Eric Bogosian), the guy who has sent a bunch of thugs after Ratner, who while pointedly not Jewish, is Armenian, and therefore from a group who endured a genocide (even if our dumb awful president does not recognize it as such) and also, ultimately, in over his head. 

Complicating this, Uncut Gems begins in Ethiopia, with a close-up on the crushed leg of a miner making the stakes of what it takes to get the black opal Ratner spends most of the movie trying to sell immediately clear: People—Black people—suffer so Ratner can possibly turn 100 grand into one milli. Which is why something like Stephens’ column comes to mind in the first place: Uncut Gems is a movie about those who are part of a larger freedom struggle and as a result, even when they are odds, are connected in a way that Stephens, focused on exceptionalism with no idea of what solidarity means, cannot grasp. 

That’s all real far in the background though. Namely, the Safdies, hooked on the swagger and ineffable celebrity of hustlers, bullshitters, liars, and phonies and yet painfully attuned to their reasons, their pain, their passions too, force viewers to spend two hours with Ratner as he ducks twist-faced heavies looking to collect money; scams sympathetic pawn shop hustlers; beats up the Weeknd (whose parents are Ethiopian by the way); gases up Garnett; pulls in and out of a complicated, codependent, and nevertheless deeply felt relationship with mistress/accomplice/true love Julia (Julia Fox)—while Daniel Lopatin’s Vangelis’ China meets Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Akira score seethes, screams, and sobs nearly nonstop in the background—and ultimately, loses. 

The thrill of gambling is losing not winning, mind you. Ratner is not so much “unlucky,” as reviews often mischaracterize him, but a true gambler who will always double down and take that parlay because what if he finally makes it? In Uncut Gems, that compulsion is turned into a sort of Romanticism: the stirring, ridiculous, pathological optimism of the oppressed.

Movie Listings:

The Charles Theatre, 1711 North Charles Street, (410) 727-3464, thecharles.com

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 7:00; Sat: 1:20, 7:00; Sun: 1:00, 7:00; Mon: 1:00; Tues–Thurs: 1:00, 7:00

Harriet (Kasi Lemmons, US, 2019). Fri–Thurs: 3:55

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 9:30; Mon–Wed: 9:30; Thurs: 6:45, 9:30

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri–Sat: 12:45, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35; Sun–Mon: 12:45, 3:50, 6:45; Tues–Thurs: 12:45, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri–Sat: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun–Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Tues–Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri: 12:55, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sat: 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun–Mon: 12:55, 3:45, 6:40; Tues–Wed: 12:55, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Thurs: 12:55, 3:45

Revival: Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1961). Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie, US, 2019): Fri–Sat: 12:45, 3:40, 6:45, 9:35; Sun–Mon: 12:45, 3:40, 6:45; Tues–Thurs: 12:45, 3:40, 6:45, 9:35

Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Avenue, (410) 276-1651, creativealliance.org

Can I Kick it? Presents: Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, US 1974): Sat: 8:00

The Parkway Theatre, 5 West North Avenue, (410) 752-8083, mdfilmfest.com

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019): Fri–Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 1:00, 4:00, 6:45; Mon-Thurs: 6:45, 9:30

American Factory (Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, US, 2019): Mon: 6:30 (free screening)

Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, US, 2019): Fri: 12:45; Sat: 6:30, 12:45; Sun: 4:15; Mon: 7:00; Wed: 9:30; Thurs: 9:15

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019): Fri: 4:15, 7:15, 9:45; Sat: 4:00, 9:45; Sun: 1:00, 7:15; Mon: 9:45; Tues: 7:15, 9:45; Wed–Thurs: 9:45

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, US 2019): Fri: 3:45; Sat: 1:00; Sun: 3:45; Wed: 6:45

Ornette: Made In America (Shirley Clarke, US, 1985): Thurs: 7:30

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz, Brazil/Germany, 2019). Fri: 12:45, 7:00, 9:45; Sat: 3:30, 7:00, 9:45; Sun: 12:45, 7:00; Mon: 9:15; Tues: 7:00, 9:45; Wed–Thurs: 7:00

Enoch Pratt Free Library

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie, US, 2019): Thurs: 5:00, Roland Park Branch

Crawl (Alexandre Aja, US, 2019): Wed: 3:30, Herring Run Branch

Don’t Let Go (Jacob Aaron Estes, US, 2019): Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Ave. Branch

In Remembrance Of Martin (Kell Kearns, US, 1986): Wed: 3:00, Clifton Branch

The Lion King (Jon Favreau, US, 2019): Sat: 2:00, Central Library

Microcosmos (Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, France/UK, 1996): Wed: 3:00, Hamilton Branch

Penguins Of Madagascar (Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, US, 2014): Sat: 2:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon, Japan, 2003): Fri: 3:00, Walbrook Branch

 

The Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, (410) 323-4424, senatortheatre.com

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri–Sat: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45; Sun–Mon: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Tues–Thurs: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45

Bombshell (Jay Roach, US, 2019). Fri–Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:45; Sun–Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:45

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US, 2019). Fri–Sat: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35, 9:35; Sun–Mon: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35; Tues–Thurs: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35, 9:35

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise Of Skywalker (JJ Abrams, US, 2019): Fri–Sat: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40, 9:40; Sun–Mon: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40; Tues–Thurs: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40, 9:40

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