New movies can be invigorating because they’re original, or because they’re a welcome change to the status quo, or they spring from the imagination of a thrilling new filmmaker; but even with originality, there will always be the perfect double feature pairing somewhere in cinema’s past. Every movie shares an unshakable bond with another movie, or movies, from another time. Part of the beauty of film is recognizing the references and spotting thematic and visual overlap, even in the most inventive new works. Linking DNA as it spans decades is an important historical exercise, and one of the best ways to examine the connective tissue of film history is to screen two movies – maybe even three, maybe four, maybe a dozen for a marathon – back to back, to appreciate the influence the past has on the present. Often times, seeing two films together enriches the experience of both.
There are plenty of films that might pair well with Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers 2019 high-wire follow up to Good Time starring Adam Sandler in a career best performance. Sandler’s Howard “Howie” Ratner is a jeweler addicted to the chase in all its many forms, robbing Peter to pay Paul until all the apostles are on his tail. He’s hooked on gambling, whether it’s with his money or his life, and he has a tough time getting out of his own way. His wife doesn’t trust him, his kids hate him, his peers are frustrated with his excuses, and his new pal Kevin Garnett doesn’t exactly respect his wishes. And yet, all Howie wants in the world, all he needs, is for this one last winning bet to pay off, so he can square his debts and hit the road and be set free of this hamster wheel on which he’s trapped.
None of the potential Uncut Gems double feature ideas share the same burning desire for deliverance, or revel in the same theater of desperation, as Ulu Grosbard’s hardnosed reform story gone awry, 1978’s Straight Time. In Grosbard’s story, adapted from Edward Bunker’s novel of the same name, our hapless Sisyphus is Dustin Hoffman’s Max Dembo, an ex-con who can’t catch a break no matter how hard he tries. Fresh out of prison for burglary, Max is in The System now, the institutionalization showing in his thousand-yard stare, but prison hasn’t killed him yet. He still wants a normal life, and he’s determined to find a way.
Max is trying his best to slide through on the straight-and-narrow with a job and an apartment, all the while obstacles pop up in front of him like the springboard bad guys on a shooting range. No matter how earnestly he pleads or how hard he tries, he’s always running uphill, always fighting to avoid incarceration. His parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) doesn’t believe in him, his friend (Gary Busey, at his most southern) is a fuckup who only gets him in trouble, his partner (Harry Dean Stanton) is a complete wild card, and all the straight gigs in the world can’t keep Max’s eyes off the quick score. Eventually, out of desperation, and after some impulsive decisions, he falls back into his old ways.
Max and Howie share the common bond of men who have let their world get away from them, who walk the razor’s edge between life and death – or at least a hefty prison sentence – from sunup to well beyond sundown. It’s not a stretch to imagine Hoffman’s hangdog loser and Sandler’s two-bit hustler cooking up a scheme together in some parallel universe. Straight Time and Uncut Gems are kindred cinematic spirits, no doubt, both portraits of men unraveling and pressure mounting, but where they truly connect is where the women come into play.
Both films have a touching romance beneath their escalating, chaotic narratives. In Straight Time it is Theresa Russell’s Jenny, the employment office clerk, who sees the good in Max; she also sees some of the bad, which is probably why she’s drawn to him in the first place. When Max backslides into his life of crime, Jenny doesn’t flinch, not at first. She sticks with him, excited by the prospect of adventure and pulled into this sad man’s world, a naïve young girl without life experience, imagining herself as Bonnie Parker. Jenny is helplessly charmed by this hapless underdog, and that sort of carefree romanticism permeates both stories.
The biggest surprise in Uncut Gems is not Adam Sandler, but Julia Fox as Howie’s doting mistress, Julia. She works with him, she sees him struggling, but she loves and supports him at every step, a bright young beacon of hope exhilarated by her man’s unstable lifestyle. Fox is the beating heart of the film, a vibrant and crucial detail to Howie’s plight, as is Jenny for Max. These are smart, beautiful women entranced by men on the edge, fighting to stay afloat. The fact that both of these anxiety-ridden crime dramas take the time to develop such similar romances – albeit ones with different endings – is enough to forever link them.
The Safdie Brothers only mentioned Straight Time once, in passing, during their round of interviews for Uncut Gems, but it’s undeniably a neon, late-night cousin to Ulu Grosbard’s daylight desolation. It’s the flipside of the coin. That’s why it fits so perfectly as a double feature. Play Straight Time first, in the evening slot, then roll the reels on Gems right after, as the clock flirts with midnight, and the similarities will shine. Not only that, but the differences between the two movies will compliment each other in all the right ways, namely in the aesthetics and energy of direction. As Max’s world spirals out of control, the city expands and abandons him; when the proverbial shit hits the fan for Howie, the sidewalks narrow and the oppressive walls of Gotham close in. Almost all of Straight Time takes place in the bright SoCal sunshine, while Uncut Gems revels in the night.
One film is also decidedly more cynical than the other, but even that analysis involves the subjective experience, and could change from person to person. In both films, the essence of their respective final scenes and our protagonist’s outcomes can be taken in one of two ways, as a net gain or a net loss. We root for Howard and Max, and dismay at so many of their choices, but we likely absolve both of them with varying degrees of empathy. The glass if half full, or it’s half empty, and seeing Straight Time and Uncut Gems in a double feature may even have the power to change the way you feel about Max Dembo, or Howard Ratner, while you watch them ice skate uphill.