This story was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, but we are republishing it as the movie finally hits theaters.
I love a good celebrity stunt cameo — Halsey presenting a Grammy to Ally in A Star Is Born, hello! — so I was very excited to see how the Safdie brothers, in their new movie, Uncut Gems, would use Kevin Garnett. Not that I’m in the habit of scrolling through Garnett’s Instagram, but last November he posted something curious: Adam Sandler took a selfie with the former NBA player in the background. What are Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett doing hanging out together? I wondered. Was it just a set visit or a day of work, or was he ack-ting in this movie about a diamond-district jeweler and a particularly frenetic few days of his life?
In Gems, Kevin Garnett plays … Kevin Garnett. It’s not a gag, like Mike Tyson in The Hangover; it’s not like Julia Roberts’s cameo in Ocean’s Twelve, where Julia Roberts-as-Tess is talked into pretending to be the actual Julia Roberts because they sorta look alike. An R&B star (whom I won’t name, because spoilers!) has a cameo in Hustlers that is legitimately breathtaking because it punctuates the whole slick, exclusive world inside a strip club where women can monetize desire — this isn’t that either. Gems takes place in 2012, during the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the movie establishes early on that basketball is important to the narrative and to the movie’s main character. Garnett isn’t a cameo to set the scene or show clout — he’s really acting, and he’s really great.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is the kind of guy who’s always working an angle, always looking to score, always talking himself into one problem just to delay something else. The entire movie is populated with guys he owes money to: various other jewelers, pawn shops, his own family. He’s saddled with debt, and the pressure hangs over him intensely, but there’s a perverse optimism about Howard that you can’t look away from: This could really be the deal for him that goes off like gangbusters, he seems to say in every scene, but if it’s not this deal today then maybe this other one next week. It’s hard not to root for him, even as he runs to the next quagmire, getting money for one thing just to go gamble it on another.
Garnett, then playing for the Celtics, walks into Howard’s store with a small entourage, brought there by Howard’s well-connected middleman, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Howard is extroverted and a salesman, not starstruck or a fanboy; basketball lights his brain on fire. He calls him KG, trots out some kitschy goods (importantly: Furby-shaped bling). Only because he’s KG, and because he’s here in his store, Howard brings out something special just to show it off. From some Ethiopian Jews, he explains, he’s found and purchased a purple-blue iridescent rare opal. The Oneohtrix Point Never score pulsates in the background. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s thee uncut gem!
Like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame or an old-money socialite on the Upper East Side, Garnett is transfixed. He holds the gem and looks at it so intensely it’s like he’s looking through it. In Gems, the rock’s power is basically in the eye of the beholder; Howard looks at it and basically only sees the million dollars he thinks it’s worth, but Garnett sees it as a totem. He asks Howard if he can keep it for the night, just so he can have it for the Celtics’ game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the course of the movie, through Garnett’s four scenes (with a little game footage from the real Celtics–76ers games that year), he’s obsessed with the gem in a way that makes you obsessed with it. He pops in and out of the movie and every time it seems like a miracle that this massively famous, powerful person keeps coming back to Howard’s shitshow of a store. Every time, he fusses with Howard and is obviously annoyed by him, but the stone keeps him coming back. “Why are you playing with my emotions,” he says at one point, after Howard declines to sell him the stone and then almost does and goes back and forth again. There’s a hilariously frustrated anguish to the way Kevin Garnett is playing a man obsessed with what, at face value, just seems like a very bougie accessory.
The Safdies have a knack for tapping nonprofessional actors to live in and around their main characters. It adds to the richness of the world, where you can’t tell who’s acting and who’s just living and breathing and working as they normally would, but with a camera in the room. The brothers prefer “first-time actor” instead of “nonactor.” The Weeknd pops up in Uncut Gems for a cameo and a performance of his first hit, “The Morning,” but Garnett is a real supporting actor here, where the movie plays with his status and fame but also gives him real scenes and the same desperate ambition as everyone else. Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems is an instant classic.