uncut gems review

On the early afternoon of November 28, 2019, Josh and Benny Safdie celebrated Thanksgiving by sharing scenes of intense family dysfunction. Over the course of the afternoon, the Safdies’ official Twitter account posted a handful of .gifs from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The first is a scene where Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan – having just punched out his sister’s sliding glass door in a rare fit of unrepressed anger – admits to his clueless brother-in-law that there are moments when he does not like himself. The thread ends with the iconic dream-like sequences from the film, built around the abstract colors of the late digital artist Jeremy Blake.

With Uncut Gems now in theaters, the Safdie’s appreciation of Punch-Drunk Love is bound to become a frequent talking point. Sandler’s performance as jeweler Harry Ratner is already garnering Academy Award buzz – or, at the bare minimum, outrage about its Golden Globe snub – and the Safdie brothers seem poised to cross over to mainstream audiences in a way that not even the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time could make happen. And yet, despite a well-documented love for Anderson’s film, both Josh and Benny Safdie are quick to point out that any parallels between the two features are less overt than they may seem.

This post contains spoilers for Uncut Gems.

“The only correlation I see between our movie and Punch-Drunk Love would be a subconscious one,” offers Josh during our post-screening conversation in mid-November. It’s an understandable perspective to offer; few filmmakers want their work to be viewed through the lens of another artist, and as the Safdies point out, Sandler was conscious of potential connections between the two films. But in both cases, Sandler is more than just a comedian taking on a serious role. For those who grew up watching Sandler as a box office draw, his unique blend of anger and innocence exerts its own gravitational force, shaping entire projects around him to fit his celebrity.

And viewed through that lens? The parallels between the two films are almost impossible to ignore.

When Punch-Drunk Love was first released, critics were shocked at the unearthed depths of Sandler as a performer. Known primarily for his successful comedies – the closest Sandler had come to dramatic work was the relatively dialed-down The Wedding Singer – Barry Egan represented a new Sandler, one who tapped into the childlike tendencies of his most iconic characters with a newfound self-awareness. “I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are,” Egan explains to his brother-in-law, frightened and confused by his own outbursts around his loved ones. For the Safdies, as with most thirty-something moviegoers who grew up on films like Happy Gilmore and Little Nicky, this was something entirely unexpected.

“When Punch-Drunk Love came out, it was the kind of confluence of all of our interests,” Josh explains. “The beauty of that film is that PTA made a Sandler movie and this kind of absurdist comedy. I believe Sandler is kind of like the closest thing our generation has to a Jerry Lewis.” 

If you haven’t watched Punch-Drunk Love in a while, it’s worth revisiting, especially after seeing how the 17 years of work between that and Uncut Gems have shaped Sandler as a performer What’s striking about the movie now is how close Anderson and Sandler came to creating something uncomfortably dark. Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard is a cipher. There are moments scattered throughout the film that speak to her near-obsessive interest in Sandler’s Egan – that she, to quote Jon Brion’s “Here We Go,” found someone for her, strange as she is – but viewed through a contemporary lens, her motives remain opaque – and suspicious. What she could see in a man who offers emotional outbursts, fits of violence, and pathological lies is, at the very least, open for discussion.

The same can be said of Howard Ratner. Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems lives in the same intersection of the whimsical and the dangerous. Like Egan, he’s all-consumed by an opportunity that only he can see; like Egan, he also requires the celebrity of someone like Adam Sandler to keep him from veering to a darker place. There’s a scene, for instance, where Ratner watches his assistant and lover Julia (Julia Fox) come home to the Manhattan apartment they both sometimes share. Ratner hides in the closet, texting filthy instructions to Julia and gauging the sincerity of her reactions as she responds in turn. The scene combines the illicit thrill of voyeurism with something darker, a possessiveness that will later be played out when Julia hooks up with The Weeknd at an exclusive after-party.

In both roles, Sandler brings with him a blend of anger and uncertainty unmatched in his career. Thankfully for the audience, he also channels that same everyman appeal that made him a star. “We knew from the beginning that Howard needed somebody like [Sandler] to take him over the finish line,” Benny explains, “because he could come across as a totally terrible person who you don’t want to root for. And then the movie doesn’t work.” Egan and Ratner each come close to being indefensible; it is only how Sandler channels this uncertainly that keeps the audience on the character’s side. “When Sandler gets frustrated, people understand and relate to that,” Benny adds. “That’s part of why you root for him in all of his films, and you love him in all of his films. You just want to believe that all of it is so sincere. 

Paradoxically, the elements that make Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems so similar also show how they differ. Each film orbits around Sandler’s mesmerizing screen presence, but both do so at a speed unique to their directors. Anderson prefers to let Egan twist in prolonged moments of discomfort; in scenes where he calls a phone sex hotline or is mobbed by his aggressive sisters at their much-anticipated birthday party, we watch the entire scene unfold in excruciating real-time. With a body of work that includes films like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, the average shot length of Punch-Drunk Love remains the longest of Anderson’s career.

For their part, the Safdies prefer to let their movies hinge on a series of individual moments. Much has been made of the anxiety-inducing experience of watching Uncut Gems; as Ratner’s life spins further and further out of control, the Safdies treat us to an incredible depiction of momentum. For sports fans, momentum refers to a sequence of events that can, positively or negatively, impact the psychology of the players themselves. Athletes may act more or less instinctively or begin to over-anticipate the actions of their counterparts, causing them to make mistakes of fractions of seconds. Perceived changes in momentum can put entire audiences on tilt, despite no outward evidence that things have changed. For a character like Rathner, who lives in each individual moment, these changes can represent literal life or death.

As self-declared basketball fans, this kind of moment-by-moment storytelling appeals to the Safdies – Josh refers to it as his “attraction to mania” – and helps inform the relentless pace of their features. Fractions of seconds in sports can determine whether your team wins or loses, and the brothers break Uncut Gems down into a series of almost unbearable micro-moments throughout. “[Howard is] very much an of-the-moment guy,” Josh continued, “and everyone in his life is kind of leaning on how he’s feeling in that one moment. Is he hot? Is he cold?” For Benny, this pacing echoed that of the movie itself. “There are moments in this where, if it’s two seconds too long, it doesn’t work,” he added. “And that’s crazy! It’s like, oh, two seconds, what’s two seconds? But if you hold on for two seconds too long, you’re out.”

Fast or slow, it takes an actor like Sandler to successfully combine these elements of anxiety and hyper-realism. “He embodied this kind of underdog character who grounded unbelievably absurd scenarios in a weird, strange version of reality,” Josh explains of Sandler and his comedies. “His character, you just kind of believed even though you’ve never seen them before.” 

There are, of course, touches throughout Uncut Gems that are directly evocative of Punch-Drunk Love, moments that could only be, to quote another Paul Thomas Anderson film, “one of those things.” In one of the standout scenes in the film – also found in the movie trailer – Ratner is confronted in a Manhattan plaza after his attempts to create a bidding war with Kevin Garnett backfire tremendously. Ratner’s two-piece blue suit instantly calls back to Egan’s signature suit, a fact that was not lost on the Safdies – or their star.

“When Sandler showed up on set wearing the suit for the auction day, the one he eventually gets thrown into a fountain with on, he walked in and I said, ‘I’m just feeling some Barry Egan vibes,” Josh recalled. “Sandler said, “Any time the Sandman puts on a suit, it’s Barry Egan.’” After reflecting on this wardrobe choice, though, the brothers realized that their appreciation for Barry Egan had probably led them to think of the color blue for Ratner at this moment.

But the connections run even deeper than that. There’s also another scene with an extended family dinner – this time, a seder celebration led by Ratner and his father-in-law – that forms connective tissues with the birthday party in Punch-Drunk Love. As in that scene, Sandler’s character is forced into a quiet – and uncertain – confrontation with another character, this time a wife (Idina Menzel) Ratner is no longer certain he wants to divorce. Before his moment of emotional honesty is broken by a group of aunts and sisters, Ratner is calmly dismissed in his shame.

The Safdies have even found their parallel to artist Jeremy Blake’s abstract color schemes, connecting the universe of colors contained in the gem with the few final moments of Howard’s life. As the camera zooms into the gaping hole in Howard’s head, bright blasts of color – meant, perhaps, the serve as the final firing synapses in the man’s brain – bookend the film in both color and violence. This further reinforces the parallels between the fantastic world of Barry Egan and the violence and pain that Howard calls home. In the world of Punch-Drunk Love, the colors evoke music and life. In Uncut Gems, they’re just another possession that can get taken away.

In the end, no one is suggesting – nor should they – that Uncut Gems is simply a reheated version of Anderson’s film. Had the Safdies ended up with Jonah Hill in the lead role, as was the case during one period of uncertainty, Uncut Gems would undoubtedly feel even more different than it already is. But there’s no denying that Sandler’s charisma and ability to imbue even the darkest moments of his characters with warmth has a unifying effect on both films. Sandler, as a performer, takes two difficult characters and makes them some of the most dynamic of the past two decades. We often talk about actors being the ‘only ones’ who could play iconic roles, but in the cases of Barry Egan and Harry Ratner, that may indeed be appropriate.

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