Reel Critic: ‘Uncut Gems’

By OWEN MASON-HILL

The entirety of the Safdie brothers’ 2019 “Uncut Gems” is a sucker punch to the gut, and as soon as you fall to the ground gasping for air, you are battered by an assault of kicks. There isn’t a moment’s respite for the full two hour and fifteen minute runtime. It seems, right from the start, that the film has caught Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) at a point when his world is crumbling. Yet after the final fade to black, I have come to the realization that it has always been crumbling. 

Howard is a jeweler working with a range of very high-paying clients, yet there is something undeniably shady about his practices. He has a wide selection of precious gems and an array of studded necklaces, bracelets and watches. Those around him understand not to ask where he gets them: They already know that the answer will most certainly not be legal. He owes money to just about everybody, though he doesn’t seem all too concerned with paying them off, causing tremendous stress and irritation to his creditors. Howard has always been a day late and a dollar short, but that just seems to be the way life goes for him; it’s not an anomaly, it has become the norm. 

Set in the midst of the 2012 Eastern Conference NBA Semifinals as the Boston Celtics take on the Philadelphia 76ers, “Uncut Gems” brings the real life persona, charisma and talent that is Kevin Garnett into Howard’s arena. One of Howard’s “partners,” Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who helps Howard bring in customers on the condition that Howard helps him sell his fake Rolex watches, has brought Garnett in for that exact purpose, yet Howard has something different to show him on this occasion. For the past 17 months, after making a discovery while watching the History channel, Howard has wheeled-and-dealed his way into procuring a black opal, one of the most precious stones in the world, worth roughly $1 million as is. 

“You can see the whole universe in a black opal,” Howard says to Garnett as he hands him a loupe to inspect the gem, drawing him into the allure the gem emits. This is the central theme of “Uncut Gems,” you must search past the rough exterior of an uncut gem and look inward to discover the beauty of it. 

Howard is an uncut gem to the utmost degree; rough on the exterior and only to the trained eye can his 24-karat brilliance be seen.

COURTESY PHOTO/A24

Kevin Garnett found himself in a turbulent seven game series, fluctuating up and down, carrying his team equally often to victory and defeat. So, as he enters Howard’s shop, he is searching for salvation. As soon as he places the loupe to his eye and leans in to the crystal he sees his whole life flash by. 

Garnett himself is an uncut gem, especially as an athlete. Professional athletes open themselves up to incredible amounts of criticism and hate; reactions are directed towards their outermost layer, yet Kevin wants to look deep within himself to find the star ball player he is. The pull of the gem is incredibly magnetic, as soon as he sees it, he knows he must have it, offering up his 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral, given that he doesn’t have the $1 million tucked away in some back pocket. 

A jeweler with a ring and an athlete with a rock, each possessing something of value to the other with the agreement that a swap will be remade at the end of the week when Howard has arranged for his gem to be auctioned off. However, things immediately fail to go according to plan as Howard pawns the ring to make a bet on Kevin in order to procure the $100,000 debt he has collected. 

Howard believes completely in his ability as a businessman and financial whiz, yet time isn’t on his side — there are only so many chances you can be offered before your mistakes get the better of you. In the end, the constraints of the hole Howard has dug for himself may be too great for him to escape. It is in his beautiful demise that “Uncut Gems” emplores audiences to strive to understand the deeper existence of someone, see them as there are, not who they present themselves to be. Everyone is an uncut gem struggling to find their way out of the mines and into the spotlight; Howard’s only problem is mistaking the gem for himself.

An endless search for external and monetary validation can lead nowhere, and it is only within ourselves that we come to understand the world.