February 14, 2020 | Arts and Culture
the whole universe in opals
uncut gems and love in the commercial age
Film nerds, we’ve reason to rejoice; regardless of what you think of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, it’s undeniable that its best picture win represents a watershed moment for the arbitrary meritocracy that is the Academy Awards. In the future, every movie-going ingenue who takes their first trip down the list of best picture winners will be forced to watch at least one subtitled, non-English-language film, and a fucking brilliant one at that. Best picture accuracy notwithstanding, though, I still think 2020 will go down as the year when one of the best films in recent memory got passed over as industry retribution for the likes of Jack and Jill and Click; I’m talking, of course, about the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and Adam Sandler’s searing performance as beleaguered diamond dealer Howard Ratner.
With the Oscars in the rearview and Valentine’s Day upon us, I’d like to posit that Uncut Gems is a love story. I don’t mean that you should show your date that brilliantly uncomfortable scene in which Howie sexts his girlfriend from her closet, where he’s hiding unbeknownst to her while watching her snap nudes on a couch. What I mean instead is that Uncut Gems exemplifies the pitfalls of romance in an increasingly commercialized and alienated world. Beneath the glitz and bustle of Uncut Gems—the hectic menagerie of the New York jewelry scene, the vibrancy of the titular gem’s ethereal blues, the near-constant noise (the Safdies refuse to filter out or lower background sounds within the audio mix)—lies a tender story about what the pursuit of wealth can do to love, an existential meditation on how to find our humanity while perpetually immersed in an economic landscape that would rather we forgot about it entirely.
The film’s opening seems like the place to start; it begins with a sequence of Ethiopian miners extracting the gem around which the film revolves, working in excruciating conditions at constant risk of injury. The Safdies herein contextualize the gem’s value in its broader history—one of exploitation and greed. Then, in a decision sure to drive away any of the critical-praise-curious grandparents who have missed the memo on the actual content of Uncut Gems (it’s a film in which Adam Sandler impassionedly screams “Go fuck The Weeknd” with a straight face—what were they expecting?), the Safdies go straight for the experimental jugular and spend at least a minute inside the gem before seamlessly transitioning within the molecular setting to a shot of the inside of Howard Ratner’s colon. It’s a funny move, for sure—you get lost in the crystalline beauty of the cells and feel a bit jarred when you realize you’ve just been entranced by Adam Sandler’s inner organs. But it’s also an important one, because it establishes an equivalency between the jewel and the body. In a sense, Ratner has become the gem. It’s as though the camera were trying to thrust the question rudely before our eyes: What is the difference between a man and his wealth?
I suppose one could have a more pessimistic reading of the film, and I suppose they would be justified in it. After all, things don’t exactly end well for Howard Ratner. But there are fleeting elements of Uncut Gems that suggest to me a more positive reading, the most notable being Howie’s relationship with the aforementioned Julia. She is, in effect, Howie’s mistress; he’s estranged from his wife Dinah and spends the majority of his time with Julia at the family apartment.
Some people have suggested that Julia’s something of an antagonist in the film (if you were wondering who Sandler’s screaming “Go fuck The Weeknd” at, it’s her, moments after he catches her fooling around with The Weeknd—yeah, seriously, The Weeknd playing The Weeknd—in a bathroom), but I think exactly the opposite. Indeed, Julia is the key to the love story of Uncut Gems, or, if you will, the key to understanding what it has to tell us about love. She and Howie share an obvious connection: They’re both risk-takers, they both enjoy the adrenaline rush of what they do, and—as the sexting sequence, which ends with Howie bursting out of the closet and surprising the delighted Julia, indicates—they’re both enamored of each other’s vanity. In many respects, they’re a perfect match. But, throughout the film, Howie seems distanced from Julia. When he catches her feeling up The Weeknd, he becomes incensed with her, forgetting that the reason she’s talking to the rapper at all is that she’s working on selling him a studded necklace of Michael Jackson’s likeness on a cross. After this, Julia attempts to win him back, and he throws a smoothie at her. Then, when Howie’s at his lowest, Julia finds him in his office and shows him her new tattoo (yeah, it’s his name—I didn’t say Julia always makes good life decisions). And, at long last, when Howie’s managed to complete the sale of the eponymous gem to Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (who, it bears mentioning, is a shockingly competent actor, even if he is playing himself), he decides to take the money Garnett has given him and make a desperate gamble that he knows could cost him his life instead of settling down with Julia and walking away unscathed.
It seems evident that Howie’s conception of value is empty; he’s more attracted to the accumulation of wealth than he is to human connection. And indeed, the promise of this wealth consistently interferes with his ability to find romantic happiness, even with a person who appears to share his values and to have a similar interest in high-stakes jewelry dealing (or at least the accompanying rush). Despite what the skeptics say, I really do think Julia’s in love with Howie. She isn’t using him for his money, as he often suggests—it’s the other way around. So sure, Uncut Gems asks us to examine the ethics of capitalism through the lurking specter of African labor regimes and montages of jewels interspersed with destitute workers. It does a great job of it. But I also think it asks us to examine ourselves and seeks to remind us that love is not about assets or material goods, but about a willingness to leave them behind.
“You’re my home,” Julia says to Howie as he sobs in his office chair. “You could come to me.” But Howie doesn’t. He’s become the gem. He’s become his desire for it. As Valentine’s Day dawns, and as we all continue to exist on the threshold of entrance into the same capitalist hellscape that Howie inhabits, here’s a reminder: Don’t become the gem. And if you’re feeling up to it, give Uncut Gems a watch. You’ll learn about the grand tradition of global capitalism and its potential to ruin lives. You’ll learn about what we pay when we put our success before the people we love. And if you’re not interested in that, you’ll get to see Adam Sandler in a fistfight with The Weeknd. You really can’t lose.