There are very few films, or pieces of media in general, that so quickly and largely become part of the Internet’s lexicon like “Uncut Gems.” Adam Sandler, yes, that Adam Sandler, plays the role of a lifetime as Howard Ratner, a jeweler in New York City’s diamond district, circa 2012. The movie’s plot focuses on Howard’s daredevil attempts to handle his huge debts and distraught marriage. Each scene provides higher and higher stakes by overwhelming its audience with a claustrophobic score and overlapping dialog, which often has multiple characters talking at once. Howard’s douchebag charisma carries the film as his life spirals into chaos, leading to some of the most incredible scenes from a movie in recent memory.
“Uncut Gems” became an instant meme-machine for a variety of reasons. The movie touches on a ton of popular culture including basketball, New York City, gambling and modern jewish culture. As a New Yorker who happens to be a huge basketball fan, this movie feels like it was created in a lab where they dumped all my favorite stuff together, it banged around loudly like an old washing machine, and out came ‘Uncut Gems’ in a tiny blue vial. This film features specific events in recent basketball history as main plot points, the king of New York sports radio Mike Francesa as a bookie, and NBA legend Kevin Garnett playing the pivotal role of himself. Many characters are untrained actors, and all of their performances are spectacular and add to the gritty realism of the film.
The memetic qualities in “Uncut Gems” are born through Howard. His goatee with a five o’clock shadow, diamond earrings, rimless glasses and leather jacket provide the perfect cover for Adam Sandler to transform himself out of his goofy, mainstream comedic persona. Howard is a degenerate at heart, but his allure never runs dry. Although he’s blazing a trail of crime, his one liners and obnoxiously selfish attitude throughout have you cheering for him. Ratner’s classic line “This is how I win” has been quoted and altered an infinite amount of times on social media, and has proven to have the qualities that make a meme last. The “This is how I win” meme represents winning by “nefarious means” according to the website KnowYourMeme. Minor victories as well as huge ones are represented through this meme, as Twitter users have used it to reference everything from getting out of jury duty by changing your age to ninety years old, to tricking your wife into taking the worse plate at dinner by feigning ignorance. “Uncut Gems” has spawned tons of reaction images and GIFS that are being shared all across the Internet.
Howard’s undying demeanor that he will win his way juxtaposes itself well against the backdrop of the Internet— a low stakes affair for many, like me, who scroll through Twitter all day. Living vicariously through Howard is a trip, and pretending everything is on the line in minor moments of life are what memes emulate best, fetishizing and making light of our moment to moment experiences. Memes are connecting us through minutiae of life, and cult films like Uncut Gems are our new vocabulary for describing these moments in relation with each other. Everything from political moments to sports events to the coronavirus outbreak are being understood through memes of our favorite characters, and those with the most destructive personalities like Howard lend themselves well to convey our emotions.
The cult following spawned from “Gems” is a deserved one. The Safdie Brothers, creators and directors of the movie, nailed every aspect of how to create an immediate cult classic. The score for the film, done by Daniel Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, adds to the anxiety this film induces. Its glitchy effects and long synth chords create the atmosphere of dread that Howard battles through. “Uncut Gems” isn’t a typically enjoyable experience, and those who brought their families to the movies for the new Adam Sandler film for some goofs and gaffs would be quite disappointed, and shocked. The Safdie’s ability to make a movie that is both difficult and entertaining to watch is on full display here. There isn’t a single memorable joke or hilarious moment you can call back to. There are no tension breaking bits, just momentary relief from the suffering. The movie doesn’t allow you for a moment to question Howard’s actions, as the whirlwind the movie creates has you more swept up in what's coming next, rather than parsing through moral dilemmas. Howard exists in every moment to survive the next. He is a beautiful man, trailblazing a path to nowhere.
“Uncut Gems” is not a reproducible experience. There aren’t going to be many movies in the future that will be able to pull together as particular a cast as the Safdie’s pulled off for this one. This film has taken the internet by storm, and Howard Ratner has been inducted into the internet meme Hall of Fame, somewhere between Tony Soprano screaming and Walter White boasting.