As my isolation continues due to the Covid-19 crisis I continue to get caught up on films I wanted to watch but hadn’t had the time, and Netflix movie Uncut Gems was at the top of my list. This blistering dark thriller is an exhilarating yet exhausting ride riddled with anxious nerve-racking scenes that leave viewers equally captivated and frustrated at the same time. The central character is fast-talking Jewish New York City jewelry dealer Howard Ratner (brilliantly played by Adam Sandler) who is constantly trying to keep one step ahead of the loan sharks who dog his every move. As the movie unfolds Howard continues to be his own worst enemy making endless mistakes due to his insatiable appetite to roll the dice. Every aspect of his life is flawed by the delusion of better circumstances awaiting him right around the corner if only he could get that one break. Forever chasing the ‘if only’ sequences Howard is a troubled man who despite getting the odd break truly cannot help making perpetual bad decisions even though obvious good choices are blatantly right in front of his face. As Sandler’s character states, ‘Everything I do, it’s not going right, and I don’t know what to do.‘ An aspect of this movie that is so maddening for viewers.
But alas as the film takes shape the audience starts to see that this inescapable nightmarish lifestyle is very typical of anyone suffering from any kind of an addiction (a complex condition considered to be a brain disease that is manifested by compulsivity despite harmful consequence) and the monkey squarely placed on Howard’s back is a toxic impetus to gamble, mainly on Boston Celtics basketball games. Unfortunately, those who suffer from the propulsion to gamble do not always recognize that this obsession is a true addiction much like a drug addiction that rewires neural circuits in the brain, and once established take a lot of hard work to undo. Addictions trigger unsavory behavior in the pursuit to achieve the addict’s ultimate goal, whatever that may be. To the addict over-engaging in activities releases heady dopamine into their system that gives them a heightened feeling of pleasure. This is why addicts have such a difficult time stopping compulsions even when it’s to the detriment of their own life, and everything that should matter is compromised (e.g. health, family, finances…). With gambling the added attraction is the illusion of control that in reality does not exist. As Howard states ‘This is how I win.‘ Wrong. Addictions typically stem from some type of emotional distress rooted deep in the psyche that is too overwhelming to address head-on, so the addiction serves as a coping mechanism. This movie doesn’t touch on the underlying causes behind Howard’s addiction, but the good news is that of those who experience issues with impulse control only 20+% (approx.) will develop an addiction, and for those who do there is always help (e.g. associative learning; training based on a new stimulus).
So with this in mind what is the main take-away message of this movie you ask? It’s easy. If you feed the beast of temptation that may live in your head your life will become uncontrollable chaos, so do not let your own mind be your prison. Find a way to break the cycle. Specifically as it relates to this movie – pay your debts and do not buy into the fantasy of long shots. Find the strength to walk away when you’re ahead and don’t look back. Risk vs. Security – foolish are those who do not comprehend the danger of the gamblers fallacy (an erroneous belief that if a particular event occurs more frequently than normal during the past it is less likely to happen in the future or vice versa, when it has otherwise been established that the probability of such events does not depend on what has happened in the past), which in layman’s terms means if you flip a coin nine times and it comes up heads it’s still just a 50/50 chances that the 10th toss will be tails – not more not less. As my favorite genius stated, ‘Any fool can know; the point is to understand.’ – Albert Einstein.
Josh and Benny Safdie who directed and co-wrote this film should be commended for casting unlikely pick Adam Sandler to play the protagonist. Sandler fiercely displays his vast range of serious acting skills – so much so viewers quickly forget all the comedic shticks that made him a household name. The story-line cleverly convinces audiences to abandon all previously held views of Sandler’s repertoire as we follow his cheating lying unreliable untrustworthy character Howard down a sad road whereby he is placated into believing that some expensive gems still encased in stone (that he wrangled from poor black Jews in Ethiopia) are his saving grace, and once sold will solve all of his problems. The movie is a frantic roller-coaster of carrot-and-stick, reward-and-punishment money hunting whereby NBA basketball great Kevin Garnett plays prominent. The Weeknd also makes a small appearance in this film that adds to the plot. All and all, it’s a real shame this movie (and Sandler) was overlooked by the Oscars… as this flick is certainly a worthy contender of recognition.
P.S. I have visited Monte Carlo many times when attending the AFA-MIFF where the notion of the gamblers fallacy a.k.a. the Monte Carlo Fallacy originated in 1913 based on true events occurring at the Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco. Thankfully I have never been interested in the gambling aspect of the city. I imagine the relentless desire to play the odds must be a terrible thing and I truly sympathize with anyone who struggles with this addiction. So much so I always feel sad when I walk past any casino including the one in Monaco despite the sheer beauty of this historical glided structure. Bless those who suffer with addiction but remember there is always help; www.camh.ca