NEW YORK — If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable, feel-good movie to watch this holiday season, Uncut Gems is not it.
It’s the unflinching tale of Howard Ratner (played to nebbishy, weasely perfection by Adam Sandler), a New York diamond district jewelry dealer who has made a mess of his life — his marriage is about to end, his life is threatened, he’s in debt to everyone and constantly being chased and shaken down — partially due to a sports gambling habit that has him scrambling to pay back what he owes.
But there’s a lingering question that stuck with me after watching the film written and directed by Benny and Josh Safdie: why did they need to cast Kevin Garnett in the role and base the events around the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers?
It was a query I didn’t get to ask during an early December roundtable at a midtown Manhattan hotel attended by Sandler, Garnett and the Safdies. But you don’t need them to tell you why. Just watch the film.
The Safdies’ style is gritty, made to feel more like a documentary. In Uncut Gems, the camera constantly shakes. The sound is a near-constant, with characters talking over each other. Although Sandler’s Ratner is fictional, he’s meant to feel as real as possible.
“We had nights where I met a lot of guys who gambled and whose lives got ruined because of gambling and got to know their stories,” Sandler said earlier this month at the aforementioned roundtable. “We were very informed about the jewelry world and gambling world and looked at a lot of footage, documentaries on people, men who lost their families and everything and went to jail.”
That tells you a lot about the feel the Safdies were going for. Instead of casting an actor as a basketball player who comes into Ratner’s shop and discovers an uncut opal from Ethiopia that he thinks gives him strength to play well during the series, they cast Garnett to play himself. Perhaps that attempt to be as real as possible also helped his performance.
“It took me back,” Garnett said. “I felt like I was actually in the past. I felt actually able to relate to the exchange between Adam and myself, I felt like I’m here talking to Jacob (editor’s note: I assume he’s talking about Jacob “the Jeweler” Arabo here) about how he can ‘knock some of these zeroes down.’”
There are also two scenes — and I’ll try really hard not to spoil too much — surrounding two of those contests in the seven-game series in which the stress the audience feels throughout the film gets ratcheted up fifty-fold. Will the 36-year-old Garnett deliver for the Celtics and, in turn, help Ratner win some crucial bets? And will that, in turn redeem a mostly nonredeemable character who we’re rooting for?
Singer The Weeknd appears in the film too, with seemingly the same goal in mind: making a fictional story seem all too real and pushing the stakes over the top. And speaking with the Safdies, you can tell that’s what excites them.
Josh Safdie explained that they needed to find a series of games in which Garnett would succeed with the opal and struggle without it. Garnett’s 2012 semifinals was perfect — he had two games where he looked human and the rest where he was his usual self. That was thrilling to the filmmakers.
“The reality dictated the bet, and the story,” Josh Safdie said. “It was kind of incredible to fit this fictional world around that real event.”