NYC Everything: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is a great New York Movie, the first in years. 

To be clear: there are movies that are set in New York and there are New York Movies. 

Rarely do the two meet, with a few transcendent exceptions–Goodfellas, for instance.

The Godfather…to an extent. Its mythology is far broader than a single location; it encompasses the whole of the American Dream, and so, fittingly, goes west for its second act. 

New York Movies are insular. 

They take the old New York-as-the-center-of-the-world joke literally.

The best New York Movies are, not surprisingly, made by New Yorkers–Scorcese, Spike Lee, Woody Allen. They have a native’s cinematic gait, traversing disparate social and cultural landscapes while using the city as a vivid, tactile canvas.

And even when a New York director sets their movie in the city, it does not guarantee that a New York Movie will result.

The Wolf Of Wall Street, for instance, explodes outer borough blue-collar ambition into a grotesque bacchanalia that, though set in the city, does not evoke it in tangible fashion.

McConnaughey’s character is iconic but if you’re gonna throw that accent on a Wall Street guy without ever commenting on it, you are not making a movie about New York.

Annie Hall’s WASP-ness was a defining character trait in that it made her Other. Ditto the patrician asshole-factory graduates of American Psycho.

Ethnic and cultural identity are, of course, essential to the New York Movie–navigating, as it often does, the internal politics of ethnic communities, particularly in their collisions with the institutions of power while in the pursuit of gold (or, in this case, opal).

It’s why Boston has made a 20-year cinematic bid for New York’s turf–the blue collar Boston Irish provided a just different enough alternative to the Italians, Jews, African-Americans and New York/Chicago Irish around whom urban cinema often revolved.

Uncut Gems takes as its subject matter a rarely examined ethnic subculture: the Jewish merchant classes of Manhattan’s Diamond District.

Of course, “Jewish New York,”–as has been noted by Allen, Lenny Bruce and Paul Rudnick among others–is rather redundant. But the characters in Uncut Gems reside in a galaxy far, far away from the Upper West Side.

Though their business is in Manhattan, this is a Bridge-and- Tunnel world. Protagonist (a barely applicable term) Howard Ratner lives in Long Island and drips with the garish, just off the LIE style of the barely-legitimate businessman.

Less Alvie Singer, more Maury Finkel.

And though his business may be legitimate, his personal life is hopelessly corrupt. He is a degenerate gambler and philanderer, a petty narcissist undone by his own compulsion.

In an interview with Slate, the Safdie brothers, who co-wrote and directed (and are Jewish), explicate the delicate layering of stereotype and subversion that went into creating the character, who is both an amalgam of toxic cliches and a singularly toxic individual, beset nonetheless by a familiar sense of Old Testament-like tribulation.

In this way, Ratner is like the grotesque counterpoint to A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik–both men’s Jewishness is essential to their suffering, but in Ratner’s case it is, as in an Italian gangster movie, dialed up to the point at which the stereotype ceases to be relevant. What we are left with is a man trapped in his own repugnance, ethnic and cultural milieu reduced to mere window dressing.

However, because this is a New York Movie, and because it stars Adam Sandler (forgive me, but: as you’ve never seen him before!), this is all accomplished with style, zip and a great deal of humor. Though he is actually from New Hampshire, Sandler specializes in a kind of short-fused, put-upon character that seems authentic to a city of 9 million short-fused, put-upon inhabitants.

As in the style of Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese and Abel Ferrara, the cast is peppered with eccentrics and weirdos–less character actors than actual characters.

And the locations seem real–one of the first things you notice when you live in New York is how tight everything feels. All that grandeur is–to make a rather Freshman level observation–packed into an island only 2 miles wide. It makes for claustrophobia and a certain shabiness that the Safdies capture perfectly.

Also–Kevin Garnett is a pretty good actor?

Though peripheral in terms of screen time, he is central to the plot, as is his character’s intermediary, a rap industry hanger-on played terrifically by Lakeith Stanfield. 

This intersection of hip-hop, basketball and New York Jewish maleness is perhaps the most uniquely authentic cultural beat in the movie.

In the post-Jordan era, basketball undeniably occupies the space in a young man’s mind–Jewish and otherwise–once reserved for baseball.

And the biggest Hip-Hop heads I’ve known have been Jewish guys from the city. It’s just the way it is. Rap was born in the 5 boroughs.

Gems is obviously made by guys who understand these places of cultural overlap and even manages to make a few subtle points about inequality and economic racism.

The other quality Gems nails is one often remarked upon–it underlies most any gangster movie–but not truly perceptible unless you’ve lived in New York.

It’s the feeling of illicitness.

That you can find anything you want if you know the right guy. 

And, of course, if you are willing to pay the price. 

It’s what makes New York the ne plus ultra of urban settings, why Boston, Chicago or Philly (or, God help us, LA) will never replace it.

You can feel it in the envious gaze of the secondary city.

Years ago, I worked at a restaurant in my hometown of Baltimore. One day, the sous chef rolled up in a new BMW. I asked one of the cooks how the guy could possibly afford it and the cook said, “Well, he’s from New York–you know they always got some kinda connection.” 

And somehow, I did know. 


Below is a not-at-all exhaustive list of New York Movies. Please add your own (be prepared to defend your choices).

Taxi Driver

Donnie Brasco

Do The Right Thing

25th Hour

Inside Man

Carlito’s Way

The King of New York

Manhattan

Annie Hall

Goodfellas 

The French Connection

Raising Victor Vargas

When Harry Met Sally

The Warriors

Rosemary’s Baby

14 thoughts on “NYC Everything: Uncut Gems

  1. Nice review. I never thought of that: there are movies set in New York and there are New York Movies. Thanks to this review, I see it.

    You know, Sandler is slagged so much these days, I passed on this. But there’s been favorable reviews on this, more than other recent Sandler films, so I had it on my long list. Thanks to this review, I’m going to short list it. Perfect: it’s on Vudu.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading–I would say this is most definitely not an Adam Sandler movie in the typical sense. He is the star, but brings with him none of the trappings of conventional Sandlerhood. It’s really a great, tense, New York crime movie. Reminiscent, in certain ways (as Dave already commented) of Dog Day Afternoon and others that I’m blanking on. Worth a watch!

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      1. Okay, finished it today. Yes. I see a gritty, low-budget Dog Day Afternoon vibe. Even though Scorsese is listed as a producer, the film on the whole has an indie-Rob Weiss Amongst Friends vibe. This is more to the side of Boondock Saints than say, the slicker Goodfellas, in terms of mob/New York/urban crime-based flicks.

        Sandler was impressive. I didn’t think he could go gritty-dark, and he did it. Hopefully, a new 2nd phase for him as a dramatic actor.

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        1. Oops. Have to add after seeing Oli’s comment. It’s not “handheld,” but it does have a less-slick, handheld-cum-found footage vibe. A high-end documentary feel into the life of this infamous, real life diamond broker, if you will.

          Until the next movie. See you in the isle seats!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well that was quick! Agree. It does have kind of a docu-feel to it. And I for, one like the little mystical touches, like the push into the interior of the gem and then out of his body at the beginning and then the reverse at the end. I thought that was cool. Also, I don’t know who/what Rob Weiss or Amongst Friends is/are. I have heard of Amongst Friends–it is probably a movie I should see, huh?

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            1. Yes. It was during the Quentin Tarantino years when there were a lot of copies of his work; remember how “Tarantinoesque” was thrown around a lot during the ’80s? Amongst Friends is very low-budget, but inventive. It’s set in Jersey (if I recall). It’s not a great flick, but a decent first (indie) film that showed a world of promise. But Rob sort of shot himself in the foot — like with Troy Duffy and the whole Boondock Saints dust up.

              Rob dated Shannon Doherty. Kevin Smith talks about how he and Rob didn’t get along while shooting Mall Rats in the pages of Smith’s book Tough Sh*t (if memory serves). AF was released around that time.

              YES. That whole “gem journey” that ends by coming out of the … well, you know, was really impressive. I loved that shot as well. I love inventive one’ers.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Oh yeah, Tarantino was to movies in the late 90’s what grunge was to music around the same time. Spawned a lot of (mostly bad) imitators. I’ll have to check this out. Five Towns in LI is definitely Wolf of Wall St/Uncut Gems territory. Thanks!

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  2. I really loved this movie, I thought it had a kind of documentary quality that’s very rarely achieved these days. I like your idea about New York movies vs. movies that are just set there- kind of hard for me to see the difference, as an outsider, but doesn’t Mean Streets belong on your list? I’m also interested in your idea that NYC is the archetype or apogee of American urbanism. As a European, when I visit the U.S. I’m usually conscious of being in a foreign country, of needing to pay attention to how things work, but New York feels completely familiar—I know how things work or it’s easy to find out, I don’t have to repeat myself three times to people, people don’t talk as though they’re in some weird cult, and the whole place feels as though it’s connected to the world. Is it actually a different, more cosmopolitan kind of urbanism, rather than a deeper or more intense version of the urban experience found in other American cities?

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    1. Okay, yes, I totally know what you mean and we may be getting into sociological or semiotic territory that is above my pay grade, but yes–NYC is definitely the most European of all American cities. It is, in certain ways, completely un-representative of America or American urbanism (I say this as someone who lived there for 13 years, 7 in LA, 18 in Baltimore and have spent a lot of time in the South/Midwest/Texas). Other than Chicago, it’s probably the only city in this entire sprawling country where you can viably subsist on public transportation alone. I guess what I mean–to the extent that I have a thesis lol–is that the idea of urbanness, which admittedly carries many different connotations, but as it translates to an American cinematic vocabulary is pretty much synonymous with New York. This probably owes, for the most part, to how pervasive the gangster flick and gangster mythology is in America and American cinema. The “New York Movie” could almost be narrowed down to gangster movies completely, but…that’s no fun (and yes, Mean Streets definitely belongs on the list). I think this is all changing, as America’s–and the world’s–demographics change, but think of it this way: for a long time in American culture, an actor would just do a New York accent in order to convey that the character was urban and blue collar. Like Sly Stallone in Rocky, which is as famous a Philly movie as currently exists. But he sounds like he’s from New York (as anyone from the Philly/South Jersey/Baltimore corridor can tell you) and that is enough for the audience to connect the dots, mentally–tough, blue collar. British actors often do this, as I’m sure, God help us, Americans must absolutely mangle all the various regional British accents. If you check out The Wire again (and hey, why not?) notice that Dominic West and Idris Elba both tend to slip into a kind of New York-adjacent dialect that generally suffices as tough, “street,” etc. New York is definitely, as you say, the most cosmopolitan and worldly place in the U.S., but frankly, the “NYM” has usually revolved around blue collar ethnic communities. When people talk about the “real New York”–at least as it has tended to be translated to the screen–they’re talking about pizza and pubs and a kind of ethnic authenticity, not museums and Wall St. (although a case could be made for Am. Psycho). It’s why I put When Harry Met Sally on the list–it feels made by someone who understands the city. The Katz’s deli scene–Rob Reiner grew up in a Jewish family from the Bronx. Delis are in their DNA somewhere. Does that make sense? Does any of this?

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  3. I’ve always thought of New York as a completely different urban society than any other city on the planet. The way people speak quickly and honestly, their interesting and (sometimes biased) perspective of their own inner-city life and the greater world outside of it, and the experience of living in a place with humans of all reaches piled on top of one another– and loving it. Though a lot of ‘New York’ scared the bejesus out of me, ‘Do The Right Thing’ is one of my all-time favorite movies. As is ‘Moonstruck.’ Those two are movies you can watch a thousand times and love them more each viewing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally forgot about Moonstruck! Definitely deserves to be on the list and the writer, John Patrick Shanley is a quintessential New York playwright of the late 20th century. Lol I may go rewatch it today as a matter of fact. And yeah, New York, it is a hell of a town. I moved there in the late Giuliani years and left just before De Blasio and everybody always lamented how much the city had changed, lost its character, etc. I imagine people always feel that way about every place and if I went back to NY today I’d probably be saying the same thing.

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