About ten minutes into “Uncut Gems,” I wondered if I was on drugs. I wasn’t, but the symptoms were all there. I couldn’t understand much of what was going on, but what I did comprehend was completely, almost exhaustingly insane.
The movie began normally enough, with a team of Ethiopian miners digging out a stone encrusted with colorful opals. The camera zoomed in on one of the rock’s gems, and it became a cosmic field of brilliant, shining colors. Then, somehow, the interdimensional lights morphed into Adam Sandler’s (“Grown Ups”) colon. As the movie continued, its diamond encrusted Furbies, swirling synth soundtrack, rapid fire dialogue and appearance of The Weeknd did nothing to help.
Maybe, I thought, someone had spiked my drink.
“Uncut Gems” is a wild ride, perhaps the craziest of the year. On paper, it’s a simple premise: a man wants to make it big by auctioning a rare diamond and in doing so pay the debtors that threaten him. Yet there’s something more to the movie that both clouds and colors this simple story, giving it a bizarre, cosmic sense of import. While it was hard to pin down while I was in the theatre, I later realized that I’d seen this sort of thing before.
What other stories take real world events and imbue them with crazy, mythological twists and turns? Epics, like Dante’s Inferno or The Odyssey, do. You’re probably thinking something like, “Doesn’t a story have to be ancient and fantastical to be an epic?” or even “How could you put Adam Sandler and epic in the same sentence?”
However, even with these valid concerns, “Uncut Gems” has unquestionably epic traits. According to Penlighten, an epic’s hero is “a figure of heroic stature or national significance” and someone who “faces opponents and performs courageous deeds that are valued by the nation.” Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner performs this role, but instead of winning wars or travelling through the underworld like Odysseus or Aeneas, he fights in the high-stakes jewel market and basketball-gambling circuit.
While Ratner’s sheer greed may come off as heinous, it’s distinctly American. American cultural heroes are almost always defined by their materialistic desires — from Jay Gatsby to Kim Kardashian. Ratner represents this tenacious drive for cash, deemed heroic by mainstream America. Like the epic heroes before him, Ratner never gives up on his quest, even when threatened with torture and death.
An epic hero’s travels encounters “supernatural or other worldly forces” who “play an active part in the actions of the heroic character.” While there are no gods, angels or demons in “Uncut Gems,” there are plenty of celebrities. I’ve already mentioned The Weeknd, but there’s also Kevin Garnett playing a version of himself. These famous faces are not just camoes. In “Uncut Gems,” celebrities are major characters that influence the narrative like the Greek gods in “The Odyssey” or the demons in Dante’s “Inferno.”
If “Uncut Gems” is an epic, one must wonder why. What are writer/director duo the Safdie brothers doing by using this convention? After the film, I realized that our culture has swapped epic battlefields fought by soldiers in golden armor with casinos populated by people in gold chains. Gods too have been replaced by their modern equivalents — sports and movie stars.
As much as we like to pretend we’re more civilized in 2020, that the cell phone has replaced the scroll, certain things will always be the same. Money changes hands, battles are fought and people die. Yet there’s still love, comedy and victory. A day in the life of humanity is a spectrum that runs from heinous to holy. Most stories take a stance, portraying the world as black and white, or one of the two, and choose genres with neat, clear borders that make the world simpler. Epics, however, embrace life’s moral chaos and its endless contradictions. They take what is most beautiful, ugly, exciting and boring and paint a cosmic yet simultaneously down-to-earth portrait of the human race unlike any other narrative.
While the form is centuries old, “Uncut Gems” proves that it still has centuries left. All I can do is hope that the next one has just a little more diamond-encrusted Furbies.