One of the driving reasons people engage with narratives is for the vicarious experiences they provide. Whether that’s a Jane Austen novel that transports you to the Victorian times of England, or a Star Wars movie that lets you be part of a grand space opera, or a TV Show like CSI that puts you into the middle of detectives solving murders. The thrill of these situations and emotional rushes is why narrative entertainment is such a universal delight. It also may explain the unexpected success of Uncut Gems.
Up front, it may not be clear what vicarious experience Uncut Gems is offering. Other movies are far more transparent in what they provide. Indiana Jones gives you treasure hunting adventure. Fast & Furious gives you car chases and heists. Marvel movies give you superheroes. While Uncut Gems gives you…being in debt to a loan shark? That doesn’t really feel all that exciting, right?
But the true rush of this Safdie Brothers film is the gambling addiction of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler).
From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, we have to decide how we’re spending every second of the day. Most of us make responsible choices. We practice good hygiene, decent-enough housekeeping, go to work, and behave, overall, in a way that fits in with the standards of society. But all of us are aware of the people who don’t act so responsibly. They live much more rule-breaking and indulgent lives, for better or worse. One such person is the gambling addict.
This is what makes Howard Ratner such a weirdly relatable character. On the one hand, there’s a responsible aspect to Howard. His regular day to day life is pretty similar to most others. He has a house in the suburbs. He owns a small business. He has a wife and kids, and the marriage isn’t perfect, his relationship with his kids a little complicated. He has to go to school plays he would rather not be at. He suffers through family gatherings. This is average person stuff.
But on the other hand, Howard’s life isn’t anything like the average person’s. His small business is a diamond store that caters to celebrity clientele and high-rollers. He’s sleeping with a really attractive girl who’s nearly 20 years younger. He has a bachelor pad apartment in New York City. He’s indulging in both the responsible and irresponsible lifestyles. Meaning he represents what people know and what they sometimes secretly wish they knew. He’s both their reality and their “what if?”
One “what if?” people have relates to gambling. If the allure of gambling wasn’t so strong then the lottery wouldn’t be as popular as it is. Las Vegas wouldn’t be as popular as it is. Sports betting wouldn’t be as popular as it is. There’s a thrill to the idea of having the chance to win a potentially life changing amount of money. “What if $10 worth of lotto tickets got me $300 million?” “What if I won the jackpot on the slot machine?” “What if I bet $500 on the Browns to win the Super Bowl?”
But most of us never place those bets because we know it’s not the responsible thing to do. We’re simply satisfied with the fantasy.
But Howard Ratner gives us the opportunity to live out that irresponsible desire.
And that’s part of the tragedy. The main tension in Uncut Gems is that Howard owes $100,000 to his loanshark brother-in-law. Given Howard’s lifestyle, it’s clear he has money, makes money. He should be able to pay. Except he gambles. He indulges. His irresponsible side prevents him from clearing his debt.
The first experience of gambling in Uncut Gems comes when Howard pawns Kevin Garnett’s championship ring and uses the tens-of-thousands-of-dollars to place a parlay bet on Garnett’s performance that night in the NBA playoffs. The parlay relies on crazy variables like Garnett winning the opening tip-off, scoring x-number of points, the Celtics winning, and more. There’s a whole sequence where Howard obsessively watches the game. The adrenaline he feels passes to the viewer and we get a surge as things unfold in Howard’s favor. When Garnett comes through, it’s a relief. Something that could have screwed Howard over ends up saving him! What fun!
Except the bet was cancelled by the loanshark brother-in-law. What a bummer. All that excitement. All that potential. And it’s lost. If only the brother-in-law hadn’t interfered!
This taste of victory is the exact thing that happens to people. They win something, maybe as little as $10, maybe $5,000, or $50,000, and it convinces them they can do it again. Not only that, they want to experience the high of winning once again.
Which is exactly what we see happen with Howard. After he sells Garnett the titular uncut gems (the black opal), he expects Garnett to have a similar game as before. To the responsible person, this is an absolutely horrible decision. Howard was lucky enough the first time, right? There’s no possible way the bet could succeed a second time…right?
We watch in horror and fascination as Howard doesn’t use the $175,000 to pay off the $100,000 debt to his loan shark brother-in-law. Instead, he locks the brother-in-law between the security doors of the jewelry store and sends the girlfriend to bet all the money. It’s the height of irresponsibility. But it is thrilling. We would never do such a thing. Yet it’s fantastic to see what happens when Howard does it.
With this climactic sequence, we watch knowing that Howard has not only gambled the money but his very life. However exciting the first game was, this is 100x that. When Garnett actually comes through, securing Howard’s bet for a second time (and for real this time), many viewers will feel similar to Howard: a mixture of exultation and relief. He did it! Against all odds, against all logic, against all the sensibility in the world—he succeeded. That’s the siren song of the gamble. That orgasmic feeling of triumph when it actually pays off and you realize you’ll keep all you risked. And then some.
Except, does any addiction actually pay off in the end? When Howard wins, he loses. His actions have been so horribly frustrating to the loan shark’s goons that the one can’t take it anymore and kills Howard. Then robs Howard’s store.
In that moment, viewers are torn in two directions. Their elation for Howard and the vicarious feeling of winning the bet is immediately undercut by the consequences of living such an irresponsible life. In that moment you’re given both extremes: the highest high and the lowest low. It’s a feeling that’s addicting in its own right. And that’s why we keep watching movie after movie, show after show. Because we’re also addicts, chasing the next rush of responsibly experiencing irresponsibility.