Double feature: “Punch-Drunk Gems”

Adam Sandler on the verge of a nervous breakdown

The common perception of Adam Sandler seemed to be carved out in stone – a corky, awkward man-child, equally skilled in fart and penis jokes. Silly face, head shaped like a football. A critically unacclaimed three-time Raspberry Award winner (number two in record books after Sylvester Stallone). The Guilty Pleasure Hall of Fame member. Not someone who walks the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, right? Better think twice.

Before the superhero movies, comedies were usually the best bet to earn money at the box office and the 1990s were arguably the golden age for comedians. That’s exactly when Adam Sandler caught his big break: after leaving the Saturday Night Live, he went on to star in “Billy Madison” in 1995. A string of hits followed: “Happy Gilmore”, “The Wedding Singer”, “The Waterboy” and “The Big Daddy” established the Sandman that we learned to love or hate. The financial success of those films was undisputed and the critical reviews, well, they were shrewd in their praise.

The zeitgeist of the 1990s seemed to be a profoundly dumb and absurd script powered by an acting performance borderline genius or mental, depending on the way you look at it. The characters portrayed by Sandler were similar in many ways: horse-jawed, high-pitch voice, infantilism, and arrested development. Story: an underdog, challenged by the establishment, overlooked by the enemies and ignored by a loved one. Despite the obvious shortcomings, though, there was something undisputed in Sandler’s earlier movies: this transcendental quality of his comedy that managed to travel around the world with great success, omit the minds of millions and tickle the funny bone. Just like another absurdist, his contemporary and common collaborator Norm Macdonald, he builds up his stories from the absurd premise (thinking of a legendary “moth joke” in here) and then grounds his character in that distorted reality. A punch line seems not necessary, nor is interpretation. From this perspective, the burning desire of critically acclaimed and “fresh” directors to work with Adam Sandler absolutely makes sense.

We probably have to thank Paul Thomas Anderson. After surprising the viewers with a legitimate dramatic performance of Tom Cruise and the epic scale (and runtime) of “Magnolia”, PTA looked for a fresh challenge. He was heaving praise for Adam Sandler on talk-shows, talking about a huge interest in working with him. What he wanted was a 90-minute romantic comedy with Adam Sandler. Skip to a decade later, when brothers Josh and Benny Safdie – two up-and-coming directors born in New York – begin to develop and pitch the idea of a mental rollercoaster Adam Sandler movie that is going to be known as “Uncut Gems” years later. It was a passion project based on their experience growing up in Manhattan since their father had worked for one of the jewelers in the Diamond District.

Fresh off their debut feature “Daddy Longlegs”, the Safdies were gaining some minor buzz, but their attempts to get Adam Sandler to star in their movie were repeatedly ignored. Eventually, brothers used this as an opportunity to embed themselves in the secluded, almost forbidden world of the Diamond District, slowly earning the trust of its community and polishing the script simultaneously. Luckily, the hype train of “Good Time” managed to hit Sandler too and along came the revised script and the opportunity jumped in. The idea of someone who did “Jack and Jill” teaming up with arguably the edgiest film directors at the moment seemed bold enough for people to buy in and be genuinely shocked by the performance of Sandman. 17 years separate “Uncut Gems” from “Punch-Drunk Love” and somehow both movies are still considered anomalies. But the striking similarities and differences between them raise a question of the magnificent double feature possibility that is headlined by the two exceptional performances of Adam Sandler, the comedian.

San Fernando, CA. Barry Egan, single, has seven sisters and a navy-blue suit, manufactures plungers, engages in phone sex activities. Manhattan, NY. Howard Ratner, married and has a mistress, is Jewish and has a pink shirt, sells jewelry, does not mind sexting. Two coasts, two vibrant and nervous visions of a breakdown. We get two trippy opening scenes: the surreal formless light bulbs (dreamy soundtrack courtesy: Jon Brion) and the bad trip vision of gem-to-colon experience (spooky soundtrack courtesy: Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never). Los Angeles basked in the sunshine and contrasty shadows, lens flairs, smooth dolly shots. New York, filmed with the gritty energy of Steadicam and zoom lenses, constantly moving and getting almost too close to people, as if asking us to smell the morning cigarette breath of the 47th street dwellers. The dreamy and oddly romantic story of PTA (with the premise based on the article of Time magazine) is on the other spectrum of the Safdie brothers’ method of storytelling, a kind of pseudo-journalism that recycles reality over and over again until it feels plausible. The “rug that ties things together” is none other than Adam Sandler and his tour-de-force performance in both movies.

Of course, Barry and Howard are different, like twins where one is sweet and lame and the other one is charismatic but makes bad decisions. Barry is lonely and emotionally damaged by the overwhelming “love” of his sisters. He is a nice guy but the rage within is strong. In the words of Jack Nicholson from the other Sandler’s movie “Anger Management”, there are two kinds of angry people: the ones who shout at the cashier, and the cashier who is absorbing insults every day until he eventually grabs a gun and kills everyone. Barry Egan is certainly the latter, while Howard is the former.

Double feature: "Uncut Gems" and "Punch-Drunk Love"

The protagonist of “Uncut Gems” is as neurotic as he is obsessed with success. While Barry’s obsessions are cute, like collecting coupons from pudding to amass thousands of frequent miles (even though he never travels), Howard is fixed on the Big Win. He lives on borrowed time, sometimes literally, as seemingly everyone in Manhattan is chasing him to get their money back. He is always one step behind but the tunnel vision he has never brought him down. His biggest break must become the titular gem that can finally cover his debts. But Howard is not the kind of person that can be content with what he has, so he is always doubling down. Barry, on the contrary, lives in a fragile bubble of peace but the unforeseen outside factors test his guts: can he stand up for himself? Can he protect his loved one? Even the cheeky blue costume Barry has is like a camouflage that merges him with the blue walls in his office. The way his scenes are blocked in the first half of the movie shows how badly he needs someone near him to fill the glowing hole in his heart, someone who can unlock the real man in him. Meanwhile, Howard is dressed in Gucci, bright clothes and shining accessories, he never merges with the background and camera rarely leaves any dead space around him – this is all about him and he is wholesome, at least in his opinion. There is just him and the win.

What made these two movies so different from a typical Adam Sandler movie though? The biggest difference was a certain rooting in reality and the backstory of Barry and Howard that created a facsimile of a real world where those circumstances could be possible. It is hard to argue that the biggest Sandman’s hits were following the same storytelling formula that proved to be successful: the underdog proves other people that he is not an idiot/loser/maniac. Cast members were the same, jokes were similar, character development was identical. Here, too, shines a glaring difference between the way Sandler’s acting skills were used. Barry Egan seems to belong in a fictional Extended Sandler Universe, as he seems to be a passive-aggressive loser with a bunch of quirks and an inability to be a grown-up. He eventually manages to transform and tackle his fears though, graduating from a boy to a man in a series of weird confrontations with the Utah rednecks who were trying to extort money from him.

On the other side, Howard never changes – only the status quo is fluctuating. His blind optimism keeps him focused all the way, while setbacks are seemingly temporary. He is not cute and sweet like Barry; he is despicable and not as smart as he thinks. But the Safdie brothers want us to keep rooting for him to win. Howard keeps making undeniably human mistakes and we can’t help but sympathize with him because he is, well, Adam Sandler. If the Diamond District is chaos itself, Howard Ratner is feeling himself like a fish in the water in there. He eventually gets what he wants but he never changed. The shocking ending of the “Uncut Gems” feels like a gut punch, but Howard keeps smiling: it doesn’t matter what is happening, what will happen or what happened before. If he had a choice to come back in the past and give it another shot, he would probably do the same thing all over again.

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