‘Uncut Gems’ puts age-old Jewish stereotypes front and center

“Uncut Gems” is a critically acclaimed Diamond District thriller that depicts a series of age-old negative tropes about Jews.

Actor Adam Sandler (photo credit: REUTERS)
Actor Adam Sandler
(photo credit: REUTERS)
(JTA) — Almost every movie, TV show and other work of art gets put under Twitter’s sensitive microscope these days. Depictions of Jews in contemporary culture are especially of interest, given the wave of antisemitism rising across the country.
So in a sense it might be surprising that “Uncut Gems,” the critically acclaimed Diamond District thriller starring Adam Sandler that depicts a series of age-old negative tropes about Jews, hasn’t been subject to a controversial level of public scrutiny.
Directed by Jewish filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, the movie features Sandler as Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who juggles a seemingly endless series of bets, hustles, false promises and scams throughout the more than two-hour production.
Howard is a sleazy, greasy, greedy, dishonest businessman who wears his hair slicked back and dons lots of ostentatious jewelry and clothing. He’s obsessed with making money — perhaps to a clinical extent — and is even shown to have exploited the work of people in Africa (Ethiopian Jews, to be exact).
Sandler’s Howard, who another character calls a “crazy Jew,” is almost a parody of the antisemitic caricature that paints Jews as cheap and profit-driven.
It’s not as if this is some arthouse film relegated to a few small screens — “Uncut Gems” has made over $40 million at the box office and garnered serious Oscar buzz before this week, when it surprised critics by being shut out of the nomination list.
So why hasn’t there been an angry response from Jewish organizations or on social media? And why are Jews some of the film’s biggest fans?
There are a few possible reasons, including that Sandler, the writers and directors are all Jewish. The Safdies, who are from New York City, said in a New York Times Magazine interview late last year that Sandler’s comedy meant a great deal to them when they were young.
But the Jewish factor hasn’t completely shielded films from such criticism. When “Borat” came out, for example, the Anti-Defamation League took Sacha Baron Cohen to task for promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes in a widely seen blockbuster, despite his good intentions.
Sandler has built up a large amount of goodwill among Jewish audiences over the years with his iconic “Hanukkah Song” and role as an Israeli hairdresser in the 2008 liberal Zionist classic “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”
He’s been forward with his Jewishness, too, in a profession where Jewish performers habitually changed their names. Even in his lowbrow comedies, Sandler has played characters with names like Sonny Koufax, Dr. Danny Maccabee, Sandy Wexler, Chuck Levine and Dave Buznik.
In the Times profile, Sandler made a point of taking the reporter to the Hillcrest Country Club, a longtime stronghold for what he called “Jewish big shots.”
“Uncut Gems” never shies away from Jewishness. There’s a Passover seder scene, complete with Hebrew prayers. Jewish actress Idina Menzel plays Howard’s wife, while Judd Hirsch plays his father-in-law. Josh Ostrovsky, the controversial Instagram influencer known as The Fat Jew, has a small role owing to his long friendship with the Safdies.
In a Slate interview, the Safdies said “the humor of the film is explicitly Jewish.”
“[T]he early inspirations were these titanic 20th-century Jews, these overachievers, these overcompensators, these guys with interesting perspectives based on that, trying to work their way into society: the Rodney Dangerfields, the Lenny Bruces, the Don Rickles, the Al Goldsteins,” Josh Safdie said.
But the main reason “Uncut Gems” has avoided controversy is likely because of how it approaches and depicts its Jewish protagonist and the larger Jewish world of the Diamond District with a real sense of authenticity.
“The culture is not like an Ashkenazi Jewish lawyer from Westchester,” Jon Hammer, a former Diamond District worker, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The character was very accurately portrayed in mannerisms, clothing, jewelry, and even the love of the NBA (a lot of the guys I worked with loved the NBA).”
The Safdies are descended from Syrian Sephardic Jews on their father’s side, a specific Jewish demographic that is well represented in the New York jewelry world, in the film and real life. They based the Howard character on both their own father and others in the Diamond District, where he worked — in addition to lots of additional research. The Times profile called their script prep work “pseudojournalism.”
Sandler himself also immersed himself in the Diamond District, meeting and following around real jewelers to craft his character. The final product is a study of a real type of person from a real place that wasn’t created to feed into antisemitic stereotypes.
In the Slate interview, the Safdies said they were well aware of portraying Jewish stereotypes — and put them out there for a reason.
“I think what you see in Howard is the long delineation of stereotypes that were forced onto us in the Middle Ages, when the church was created, when Jews were not counted toward population, and their only way in, their only way of accruing status as an individual, as a person who was considered a human being, was through material consumption,” Josh Safdie said.
“[A]s assimilation has accrued, the foundation, the DNA of the strive has become kind of cartoonized in a weird way. What you’re seeing in the film is a parable. What are the ill effects of overcompensation?”