“Anything is possible.”
Kevin Garnett exclaimed those words after his Celtics won the NBA title in 2008. Little did he know he would go from basketball star to movie star 11 years later, but — as he said — anything is possible (like his trade to Boston that helped create the league’s first “superteam”).
Not even a year after he held the trophy high, the Safdie brothers were looking for a star to their film about Midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District. Adam Sandler wouldn’t accept the lead role as Howard Ratner until 2018 — the same year Garnett hopped on. Holding to the “anything is possible” mantra, we could’ve had a tandem of Jonah Hill and Joel Embiid. We even could’ve had Amar’e Stoudemire (that would’ve made a lot of sense, as Stoudemire previously made appearances in MacGruber and Trainwreck). But we ended up with a comedian, known for his critically denounced works, playing in a dark arthouse thriller as a character as intense as he was unrecognizable.
After all, anything is possible.
But the Safdie brothers capturing this side of Sandler was not impossible, as it had been done before with Punch-Drunk Love. It’s easy to tie together Uncut Gems with Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic comedy, with the typically comedic actor turning into the empathetic, blue suit-wearing Barry Egan. If there’s a single film endeavor that proves anything is possible, it’s Anderson’s third feature, coming on the coattails of a three-hour-long interwoven drama epic Magnolia. For his follow-up? “I’m determined it’s going to be 90 minutes. I’m going to show the whole world…” he taunted in a story for The Guardian back in 2000.
The film found both the director and the lead actor far out of their comfort zones, yet playing to their strengths: Sandler’s being believable (and likable) personality and Anderson’s being masterful filmmaking. It’s masterful filmmaking that allows the actor to flourish again in 2019, as well as Garnett, who makes his cinema debut playing the 2012 version of himself. (By the way, if you haven’t listened to Anderson’s recent podcast episode featuring the Safdies, it’s a must-listen before going to see Uncut Gems).
What makes Gems so fascinating — on top of Sandler’s fake teeth, Oneohtrix Point Never’s buzzsaw of a soundtrack, and the Safdie brothers’ penchant for tension — is the sports tie-in.
Yet, as high as the chaos bubbles throughout Uncut Gems, the sports moment was far from the biggest sports moment of the year. It wasn’t even the biggest moment of the NBA season, nor did it even take place in the film’s setting of New York. The moment was Boston versus Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (the furthest Garnett’s Celtics would go, thanks to the existence of LeBron James, who won his first ring that year). Sure, it’s a little too nuanced for its own good, but this is Howard Ratner’s story, after all.
In fact, a playoff series no one remembers (I try hard enough to forget the NBA Finals that year, when my Thunder lost to the Heat in their only ever Finals appearance) makes the plot seem so much more real. That’s what the Safdie brothers do so well: mesh reality with fiction. Fictional characters fit snugly alongside real people — not only KG but also The Weeknd, who is fascinating to watch play a late-night club gig years before “Can’t Feel My Face” became the biggest song in the world. Before seeing him play, Howard even asks who The Weeknd is.
Getting back to Garnett, he was the perfect cast member for a film about jewelry — he already had a ring from his 2008 title, something Stoudemire and Embiid don’t have. “Anything is possible,” in part, because sports are irrational and unpredictable. It’s fair to say gambling on sports, then, is a fallacious idea, at least the way Howard does it. KG allows him to borrow his ‘08 ring while he holds onto a special opal-filled rock, which the Jewish jeweler (“jew-eler?”) immediately turns around and pawns for over $20,000, which he then uses to bet on the Celtics in hopes of hitting a big break. How nuts is that?
Betting is a silly thing to do, seems to be the moral of this story. Remember, the Book of Proverbs warns against get-rich-quick themes (clearly Howard isn’t one to stick to the lessons of his Hebrew Bible).
We also laugh at Howard’s sigh of relief when the Celtics win the opening tip of game seven versus Philly (“If we lost the tip, I would’ve been fucked”). Yes, part of his climactic parlay bet at the end of the film was Boston winning the tip — something random and meaningless, as once the tipper tips the ball to their teammate, his team goes on to make a good 300+ passes per game. But because anything is possible, Howard wins not only the first bet, but the second bet, too. “This is me. This is how I win,” he says in the film’s signature line.
With the idea of anything being possible, I can’t help but wonder what other scenarios could’ve shaped the plot of Uncut Gems. Could it have been another NBA star from another year? Could it have been another sport? The only requirements I’m leaving intact are the need for the athlete to have an interest in jewelry that leads them to Howard’s store in the Diamond District, then for Howard to place big bets for or against this athlete’s team. Otherwise, everything else could change: the time, the place, and the end result.
Plaxico Burress’ Giants upset the undefeated Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl
Even though the Jets have a fair concentration of fans on Long Island (where Howard and his family live), we’d like to think he hopped on the Giants bandwagon in the 2007 season while the Jets sank into the Long Island Sound. It would help if a standout wide receiver like Plaxico Burress entered his store for some jewelry browsing amid his team’s miraculous playoff run. This is where he encounters the rock, his good luck charm that he purchases from Howard. He even lets down-on-his-luck teammate David Tyree borrow it for a bit — and we know how that all turns out at the end of Super Bowl XLII. An elated Howard bets big on the 12-point underdog Giants, erupting in a thunder of “holy fucks” when Burress catches the game-winning touchdown.
C.C. Sabathia’s Yankees dominate their way to a 2009 World Series win
We’re unsure whether Howard is a Yankees or Mets fan, but we can expect him to be starstruck by the idea of a Pinstriper (especially of C.C. Sabathia’s stature) entering his store. Considering C.C. had just signed a $161 million contract with the Yankees in 2008, he would have plenty of cash to spend on jewelry — leading him to the Diamond District. He gets his hands on the rock before the American League Championship Series, leading to a magical series against the Angels that ended with an ALCS MVP award. Howard bets on the Yankees to go all the way, then receives a nice return after they pummel through the Phillies in the World Series. The entire time, Howard can’t stop belting out “C.C.,” the same way he did with Kevin Garnett’s nickname “KG” in the real Uncut Gems. (“Fucking C.C. is here! It’s C.C.!”)
Jeremy Lin comes out of nowhere to guide the Knicks to the 2012 NBA playoffs
Jeremy Lin is mentioned in Uncut Gems, when Howard and his family joke that he won’t be back next year because Knicks owner James Dolan hates joy. Funny enough, they’re right — Lin went to the Rockets in the 2012 offseason. But let’s assume he appears in the film amidst his hot streak during the spring of 2012. Howard recognizes the baller immediately when he comes in his store and repeatedly yells “Linsanity!” (remember, he’s a die-hard Knicks fan who owns a 1973 NBA championship ring). He lets him borrow the rock, which continues to fuel Lin’s magical run. But Sandler’s character is under pressure to repay his debts, so he retrieves the rock at the end of the regular season and auctions it off. Linsanity soon fades and Howard’s agony as a fan continues: Lin tears his meniscus and the Knicks get beat in the first round of the playoffs.
The Mets’ pitching rotation helps them sweep the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS
Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard fronted a dominant rotation for the 2015 Mets, and as they return home to host the Cubs in the NLCS, they swing by Howard’s store. The rock, which they purchase as a team good luck charm, helps the Mets clobber Chicago in the first two games of the series. Howard bets on a sweep and receives a solid return on his investment. At this point, he’s giddy. He goes all in on the Mets (“Who the fuck would bet against this pitching staff right now? The fucking Royals? They’ve just been lucky as shit!”). Unfortunately, by November 2, all of that money is gone when Kansas City wins in five. Where’s the rock? Rumor is it’s buried somewhere beneath Citi Field, forever cursing the Mets and their insufferable fans. Poor Howard just can’t get his big break, can he?
Joel Embiid’s Sixers “trust the process,” yet lose to the Raptors on a buzzer-beater in 2019
Joel Embiid almost appeared in Uncut Gems, to the point that the Safdie brothers were actually working with the 76ers star. Let’s assume Embiid follows in the vein of Garnett and borrows the rock for some playoff magic. Trust the process? More like trust the opals. When he finally brings back the rock and purchases it for real, Howard sends his mistress (now girlfriend, as the main character has divorced his wife by 2019) straight to the casino to bet it all on the Sixers beating the Raptors in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. When Kawhi Leonard’s shot bounces around and in, Howard punches walls and explodes in a tirade of expletives (thank god his family wasn’t around to see it). He knows he’s now toast, as his debtors will be back with a vengeance. Embiid, on the other hand, continues his routine double-doubles and Twitter jabs.
Featured Image Credit: Jose Perez/SplashNews.com (Adam Sandler), Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports (Joel Embiid), Elsa/Getty Images (C.C. Sabathia), Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images (Jeremy Lin)