At the recent post-premiere party for Uncut Gems, held at the the legendary New York delicatessen Katz’s, I found myself talking with some fellow Jewish film critics. “That guy,” one said, “really reminded me of a family friend.” He was talking about Howard Ratner, the diamond district hustler played by Adam Sandler in the latest from Josh and Benny Safdie. “I have a cousin just like him,” another added. “I don’t think he’s allowed back in the country.” I was still too thunderstruck to speak. The truth is, were it not for a few life choices, Ratner could have been me.
Ratner in Uncut Gems is only the most exciting example of this season’s NCJs – New Cinematic Jews. We also have Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and the Israeli-French film Synonyms. Although there has been no shortage of Jewish characters in movies and TV over the years, they tend to be primarily sardonic, rootless cosmopolitans kvetching about social encounters while working on a novel. Or Mrs Maisel. It’s not a bad look, but considering the recent surge in antisemitism in the US and UK, it can’t hurt to mix it up a little.
Ratner - Rabbi - Man - Lenny - Bruce
Ratner isn’t what a rabbi would call a righteous man. Rather, he is what Lenny Bruce once referred to as a “junkyard jew”: a schemer, a striver (a “hondler” in Yiddish). A pest, but not a villain. A toughie who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Each move may deepen the hole he’s in, but one day he’s going to make everything right. “This is how I win,” Ratner beams to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) while explaining a business deal (and bet) that could change everything. For Ratner, the hustle can be fun.
While he may not be the quintessence of ethics, Ratner isn’t stealing so much as working the...
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