Somewhere in the midst of “Uncut Gems,” Adam Sandler’s exhausting new movie, I thought about Philip Roth and “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and the sensitivities felt by Jews and every other ethnic minority.
Was it when the sweaty, calculating, overwrought Sandler and his wife talk about putting off their divorce until “after Passover”?
Was it the shots of New York “Diamond District” Jews haggling over money?
Was it when Sandler asks a family member, Judd Hirsch, if he’ll juice up the bidding at a jewelry auction to boost the price on a precious opal?
Sandler’s Howard Ratner is practically devoid of any likeable character traits. He’s a degenerate gambler. He cheats on his wife. He’s a liar and a conniver and a carrier of ancient, cringe-worthy Jewish stereotypes.
Those around him are only marginally better. They embody Oscar Wilde’s old line about people who know “the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
And all of this is why “Uncut Gems” made me think of the late Roth and the pressures he endured for “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and how the passage of time has changed us, for better or worse.
Roth went through a lifetime of fighting with rabbis (and others) who thought they were speaking for the entire religion. Some of them accused him of giving comfort to the gentiles, of serving up Jewish caricatures. They called him “an enemy of the Jews.” They said some of his “Goodbye, Columbus” characters were “depraved and lecherous.” And at that point, they hadn’t even imagined the likes of Alexander Portnoy.
In “The Ghost Writer,” Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, receives a letter, asking, “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s, would you have written such a story?”
But for Roth, that was the whole point. This isn’t Nazi Germany, he was saying. It’s America and it’s our home, and we don’t have to hide our truest humanity any more. And our truest humanity is the one shared by people of all faiths (or lack of one.)
Even in our time of rising anti-Semitism, Roth might say, we can’t allow the bigots to define our public behavior. We’re allowed to display human flaws without worrying someone will use them as an excuse for crime and prejudice.
Frankly, “Uncut Gems” gives us character flaws – Jewish stereotypes – far worse than anything Roth ever wrote. The movie’s an ordeal on multiple levels, a hurricane of noise and vulgarity and confusion as Sandler’s character sinks ever deeper into marital trouble and financial chaos.
But if the movie’s been accused of fostering anti-Semitism, or that Sandler’s an “enemy of the Jews,” I’ve missed it. Maybe it’s a sign that Jews, like other minorities, are feeling more comfortable in our skin (and in our America) than we did in Roth’s time, even in our own time of mounting anxieties.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.