The Loneliness of Howie Bling: An American Jew Out of Time

'Uncut Gems’' protagonist represents a watershed moment in Jewish cultural history that questions age-old archetypes and points towards a more global, self-aware sense of being a Jew in the world.

A24
Advertisements

Howard Ratner is out of time. The protagonist’s tardiness—for his creditor, his auctioneer, his daughter’s school play—drive the frenetic, anxious narrative of Uncut Gems, Josh and Benny Safdie’s masterpiece released last year. All of that stress only forestalls the inevitable: Howard (Adam Sandler), a sports betting-addicted jeweler in Manhattan’s Diamond District, ultimately sees his own time expire with the buzzer of the Boston Celtics’ 2012 playoff win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Over the course of this unexpected series of events, Howard also traverses a much longer timeline related to the film’s central thematic preoccupation: Judaism. His character reprises cultural tropes and stereotypes—not least of which is always being late—from deep within Jewish history. At the same time Howard, AKA “Howie Bling,” is a decidedly 21st-century man, who sells jewelry to NBA players, self-promotes on Instagram, and parties with The Weeknd.

A24

This sloshing mix of identities—none of which he inhabits successfully—is what makes Howard such a lonely character, ill at ease in the past or present. Howard stands not only out of time, but outside of the film’s moral center: Despite its intimate portrayal of its protagonist and its obsession with his Judaism, Uncut Gems is ultimately a story about the world surrounding a Jewish man, not a Jewish man’s place in the world. This represents a watershed moment in cultural portrayals of Jews (particularly Jewish men) that recognizes the exceptional state of the contemporary American-Jewish experience and scrutinizes its relationship to other experiences and identities in a diverse, globalized society.

A24

Howard’s embodiment of historical Jewish archetypes is uncanny in the sense that they are just a little off. (This author is Jewish.) His stooped posture and false teeth combined with his erotic love for money, or at the very least, for “winning,” call to mind the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jewish money-changer or usurer. It’s a role that Jews like Shakespeare’s Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) were forced into in Medieval Europe due to the discrimination they faced in nearly every other trade. Of course, Howard merely resembles this role: while he owes debts, he doesn’t hold them.

Those debts are the result of Howard’s gambling, a major purview of America’s Jewish mobsters from the 19th-through-mid-20th-century. (Meyer Lansky, for example, was a Havana gambling kingpin; Bugsy Siegel helped create Las Vegas.) Just as Uncut Gems can be categorized as almost a mob movie, Howard is almost a mobster—in a real mob movie, he would be a “wise guy” or schlemiel who hangs around the real mobsters, as the editors of Jewish Currents observed. But what really sets Howard apart from the Jewish mobster archetype is that while he gambles, he doesn’t profit off of gamblers.

A24

Howard also echoes the Sexual Revolution Jewish man—the Phillip Roth or Joseph Heller character, whose conquest of non-Jewish women, shiksas, is seen as a major step towards assimilation into white American culture. With her prominently displayed cross necklace, Howard’s mistress, Julia de Fiore (Julia Fox), is very obviously not Jewish; but in the film’s 21st-century context, their relationship breaks no barriers or taboos.

At no point in the film, in fact, is any kind of discrimination against Jews referenced. That’s what makes Howard’s performance of these Jewish archetypes so incongruous. Throughout history, the roles Jews have played in society—and the stereotypical representations of those roles in culture—have been formed in response to anti-Semitism and hardscrabble material necessity. Jews created alternative paths to success and cultural validation through the channels that were available to them. “As assimilation has accrued, the foundation, the DNA of the strive has become kind of cartoonized,” Josh Safdie told Slate. “What you’re seeing in the film is a parable. What are the ill effects of overcompensation?”

A24

Unlike his forefathers, Howard’s hustle has no real stakes. He is abetted by his social and economic station, not held back by it. While his main creditor, Arno (Eric Bogosian), has genuinely threatening henchmen, Howard is confident that Arno will practice restraint based on the fact that they are brothers-in-law. When Howard violates the terms of his agreement with his pawnbroker for the umpteenth time, the latter lets it slide, addressing Howard with the brotherly Yiddish term of endearment, “bubi.” Above and beyond these enabling characters is, of course, Howard’s family money. At his lowest moment, he knows his uber-rich father-in-law, Gooey (Judd Hirsch), can bail him out. And he does—spending $190,000 at auction on Howard’s black opal in a botched price-jacking scheme.

Howard is a product of what historian Enzo Traverso calls “the end of Jewish modernity.” Until the end of the 20th-century, Jews were a “pariah people” providing “the seedbeds of critical thought in the Western world,” Traverso writes. As secular, Ashkenazi Jews became assimilated into whiteness in America, and the Jewish people created an exceptionally powerful state of their own, the cultural role and image of Jews changed from a group that had been victimized by systems of power to a group that, in many senses, benefited from and propagated systems of power. This is not to be conflated with conspiracy theories related to Jewish control of the media or the economy; it instead refers to the power of being white in America, and the power that the State of Israel holds with its incredibly sophisticated, American-backed military.

A24

Howard actualizes the slow turning of this “historical cycle.” He behaves as if he is still a pariah who has to fight for every scrap and break the rules of systems rigged against him, when in fact he lives in a world where almost everything is already going his way. This theme is strengthened by the film’s 2012 setting, relieving it of the necessity to engage with the subsequent rise in anti-Semitic violence and increasingly wrenching debates in the American-Jewish community over Trump and Israel. Like the end of history, the end of Jewish modernity may have been declared prematurely, but it nonetheless signals a profound historical shift, one in which the old Jewish archetypes and narratives no longer make sense.

Rather than functioning as the moral center of the film—on a quest for vengeance or redemption or success against the odds—Howard serves as a foil, illuminating injustices experienced by other characters. Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who provided him access to her family money, is the only character who understands that his whole life, the hustling and philandering he pursues at the expense of his family, is just a game. One of the film’s most revealing scenes is when Howard asks Dinah to rethink their divorce. She bursts into laughter, saying, “Your face is so stupid… You are the most annoying person I’ve ever met.” Yet this dig is all Dinah can get over Howard. Despite her economic power and clear-eyed assessment of reality, she remains in a subservient role, forced to quietly tolerate Howard’s disrespect—at least until their divorce.

A24

Likewise, Howard’s business associate and one-time protegé, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), is wedded to him by necessity. At the beginning of the film, the two appear to have a symbiotic and genuinely affectionate working relationship—with Howard providing the showroom and Demany, who is Black, bringing clients in search of bling. But things sour when Demany realizes Howard has been giving away his watches to fund the gambling, even while preventing Demany from selling them in his store. In this respect, their relationship contains echoes of the historic relationship between American Jews and African Americans: sometimes standing in solidarity as persecuted minorities, and at other times locked in an exploitative landlord-tenant dynamic.

One of Demany’s clients, NBA legend Kevin Garnett (played by himself), is the target of Howard’s botched price-jacking scheme for the black opal. But the substance of Howard and KG’s relationship largely concerns the gem itself, and the Ethiopian-Jewish laborers who mined it. When Howard sells KG the gem once and for all at the end of the film, KG questions whether Howard exploited the miners by buying the gem from them at a bargain and then selling it at a massive profit. In response, Howard compares his business dealings to KG’s passion and intensity on the basketball court, delivering his iconic line: “This is how I win.”

A24

This declaration, of course, comes after his father-in-law bails him out (for more money than KG ultimately paid); after he evades numerous attempts to collect money he owes; and after Julia professes her love for him. In reality, Howard had already won. And the Ethiopian miners who made the whole scheme possible had already lost. “They got nothing,” Howard tells KG at the beginning of the film. “They don’t got cars, they don’t got shit.” They are at the bottom of the 21st-century global capitalist food chain, working for Chinese foremen and sending the fruits of their labor to Western markets. It is they, the working class of the Global South, who embody the injustice of the current global economic system. It is they, not the light-skinned, American Jews depicted in the film, who form the “seedbeds of critical thought in the Western World,” poised for vengeance or redemption or an inspirational started-from-the-bottom narrative that Howard can only play-act.

Stories about American Jews, and the cultural role of American Jews, have been in need of a 21st-century reassessment. In portraying the old roles under the neon and black lights of our times, Uncut Gems shows just how outdated they are. The film does not present a newer, truer Jewish archetype, but it does suggest that whatever roles American Jews currently play in history’s schema, they need not cede their “modern” role of shedding light on society’s power structures. Only now, those injustices may not always be ours to transcend.

To support the site and gain access to exclusive content, consider becoming a patron.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.