Uncut Gems isn't entirely fictional- here's the real inspiration behind the Netflix movie
Uncut Gems, the latest film from the Safdie brothers (who previously made the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time), landed on Netflix at the end of January after a short theatrical run.
The film tells the story of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jeweller with a tendency to bet other people’s money on blood diamonds and elaborate basketball wagers.
It follows Howard’s increasingly chaotic attempts to hold his life together, while pulling off a huge score.
The story itself was invented by the Safdies, but it does blur the line between reality and fiction in several interesting ways.
Their time in the diamond district gave the Safdies plenty to work with. Picture: Netflix
The Manhattan Diamond District
The setting itself plays a huge role in Uncut Gems – the Manhattan diamond district is its own strange bubble, populated by people spending huge amounts of money on practically useless and often morally dubious wares.
The Safdies’ father worked in the district when they were younger as a runner, acting as the link between wholesalers and jewellers, and trying to cut deals on precious stones.
The job brought him into contact with all kinds of characters and, because everybody knew they were carrying such high-value items, the runners were often targeted by robbers – making his life story the perfect raw material for his sons’ surreal, heart-pounding scripts.
During his time in the business, their father even worked for an eccentric man named Howard – though they have been quick to point out that he was nothing like his Uncut Gems counterpart.
As adults, the Safdies would continually return to the diamond district in an attempt to channel its unique energy and atmosphere into their movie.
The real-life celebrities in the cast
One of the first things many people noted in the build up to Uncut Gems’ release was how eclectic the cast was.
As well as Adam Sandler making one of his rare departures from the lucrative world of brash buddy comedies, Uncut Gems features a cast that combines established actors with newcomers, athletes, Broadway stars and musicians.
In a move which further blurs the reality of the movie, some of them are even playing a version of their real-life selves.
Idina Menzel, the acclaimed stage actress who also famously appears in Disney’s Frozen movies, plays Howard’s wife while the former model, painter, photographer and dominatrix, Julia Fox made her big screen debut as his girlfriend, who is also named Julia.
Established actors like Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, Atlanta) and Judd Hirsch (Ordinary People, Independence Day) are also involved, playing entirely fictional characters.
However, pop star The Weeknd, rapper Ca$h Out and actor John Amos all appear as themselves, as does NBA star Kevin Garnett.
While Kevin Garnett is playing a fictional verison of himself, all of the game footage is real. Picture: Netflix
The basketball games
Garnett arrives into the story when he is taken to Howard’s store to buy some diamonds.
Thrilled to be meeting such an elite player, Howard shows him his most recent, and most prized acquisition – a rare black opal, straight from Ethiopia, which could be worth as much as $1,000,000.
Garnett immediately becomes infatuated with the stone and asks to borrow it until Howard can put it up for auction.
Howard agrees and then goes on to make a series of high-stakes bets on Garnett’s matches, convinced that the player’s belief in the stone will impel him to victory.
The games in question are all real games, drawn from the play-off matches from 2012. Every bit of NBA footage which appears in the film really took place.
The Safdies have explained that the logistics of convincingly filming fake NBA games would be so difficult that it actually made more sense to tailor the film to real life games.
In one of the post-game interviews which the film uses, Garnett talks about being all about “the rock”, meaning the ball, which worked out pretty nicely for Uncut Gems.
The elements of Jewish culture
As well as their father’s tales of diamond district drama, the Safdies drew from their own life in the influence Jewish rituals and culture have on Uncut Gems - Slate described it as the “Most Jewish Movie in Years”.
At one point, famous Jewish basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire was going to fill the Kevin Garnett role.
Howard’s religion often seems like a background element of his life - something that is mentioned in passing but doesn’t seem to exert much influence over his life.
However, it does come to the fore in a scene where he and his extended family sit down for Passover dinner together.
Howard performs a reading along with his mother, and generally treats the occasion with respect.
As they anticipated different players taking the Garnett role, and therefore different games being included in the film, the Safdies had to change the particular Jewish holiday that featured to make the dates match up.
The film has also come under fire from publications like the Times of Israel which accused it of perpetuating Jewish stereotypes.
However, the Safdies argue that Howard is someone who has learned to embody stereotypes in a way that makes him more powerful. He repels anti-semitism by becoming a gleeful caricature of Jewish cultural identity.
They also cite Jewish comedians like Don Rickles as a major influence on the film’s sense of humour.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, The i.