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).
Do The Right Thing
The King of New York
The French Connection
Raising Victor Vargas
When Harry Met Sally