Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past.
Josh and Benny Safdie‘s Uncut Gems has been a long time coming, both in its many years of development and in its culmination of the filmmakers’ influences and the work they and star Adam Sandler had done leading up to its production. Uncut Gems is first and foremost inspired by stories the Safdie brothers heard from their father, who worked in New York City’s Diamond District. It also involves their favorite sport, basketball, and the grittier kind of portrayal of the Big Apple seen in the classic crime films they grew up with.
Uncut Gems has also seemed like a long wait for its arrival on Netflix in the US. Following its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2019, the movie debuted in American theaters in mid-December with a wide release expansion happening on Christmas Day. Its $50 million domestic gross marked it as a big hit for an indie film and especially for US distributor A24, though its acclaim and box office success wasn’t enough to garner any love at the Oscars, and afterward, its buzz appeared to be waning when it dropped on home video.
The rest of the world was able to see it for themselves when Netflix, its international distribution partner, put the movie out at the end of January. Subscribers in the US finally got to stream Uncut Gems starting on May 25, and the movie quickly shot to the top of the chart of the service’s most-watched titles. Whether its many millions of new viewers are mostly overwhelmed by its intensity or have fallen for the thrills and dramas of Howard Ratner and feel at least Sandler was robbed of Academy Awards recognition, it’s definitely making a strong impact.
If you’re reading this, you’re presumably one of those who like the movie and want to see more films of its ilk. Or, you at least want to know some of its back story in the form of what the Safdies were watching and thinking about during the conception and production of Uncut Gems. Sure, there are some obvious precursors, but you’re likely to be surprised by most of what’s on the list. I’m also excluding other Safdie films (though Daddy Longlegs and their basketball documentary Lenny Cooke are part of its DNA) and past Sandler movies (all are significant).
Louis Theroux: Gambling in Las Vegas (2007)
In an interview for NYC-based movie theater The Metrograph, Josh Safdie admits that a lot of the influences that “shaped” Uncut Gems were indirect and mostly literary. But there were also films that directly influenced the brothers, including a couple of documentaries that “would be very confusing to some” viewers if put down on paper (as we’re sort of doing here). One of those mentioned in the interview is this medium-length film by Louis Theroux and Stuart Cabb.
If you’re not familiar with Theroux, he’s a British-American documentary journalist personality who broke out of Michael Moore’s TV Nation series. He examines a lot of American stories for British television but is best known in the States for tackling the Church of Scientology in the recent feature My Scientology Movie (which is also on Netflix). Louis Theroux: Gambling in Las Vegas is exactly what it sounds like: Theroux on-screen meeting high roller gamblers in Vegas. It’s casino-centric so it’s mostly relevant to the Mohegan Sun scenes of Uncut Gems.
Porn King: The Trials of Al Goldstein (2004)
The Safdies have named a number of comedic Jewish celebrities as inspirations for the lead character of Uncut Gems, but Al Goldstein is one of only two specific personalities directly discussed, according to Josh Safdie in an interview for Cinema Scope magazine. Goldstein was not a comedian by profession, but the pornography mogul, best known for co-founding the publication Screw and hosting the NYC public access talk show Midnight Blue, was often compared to old Jewish performers as well as “blue” stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce.
Like Bruce, Goldstein was often arrested on obscenity charges, and his legal troubles continued almost through the end of his life. Porn King: The Trials of Al Goldstein (also known as Goldstein: The Trials of the Sultan of Smut) focuses on these legal troubles and was released around the time Goldstein’s empire went bankrupt and he lost everything. The film is not exactly a high-quality production, but it functions fine was a spotlight on the profound and profane man whom you’ll definitely see as a model for the Howard character in Uncut Gems.
Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995)
Here is the other documentary cited in the Metrograph interview. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam is directed by English filmmaker Nick Broomfield, who is also a prominent purveyor of the first-person investigative style, similar to Theroux. He has also been a controversial figure in the documentary scene for paying people to participate in his films, and you can see that done on screen for full transparency in this one. A lot of Broomfield’s docs of the ’90s and early 2000s involve sensational stories straight out of the tabloids and feature shady and/or criminal characters.
Fleiss, the main subject of this feature, became famous for running a large prostitution ring. However, despite her operations being part of a world that most people aren’t familiar with and also similarly having her share of celebrity clientele, she’s not the reason that the Safdies acknowledge this documentary as an influence on Uncut Gems. It’s her ex-boyfriend, the convicted bookie turned movie director Ivan Nagy (Skinner), who stuck out in their minds and became a major inspiration for Sandler’s character in their movie. Watch him on screen here and you’ll recognize the sleazy charm as well as the reason Sandler wore fake teeth to play Howard.
“There’s this character [in Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam], Ivan Nagy, and he’s just got this smile. And it’s infectious,” Benny Safdie explains of the choice in a Fresh Air interview on NPR. “And at any moment, he turns it on, even in the worst situations. And it was so interesting. And I don’t know, and then we tried it out. We did a bunch — five months before we were shooting — we did a bunch of tests just to see how these things would feel.”
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce in the 1974 biopic Lenny might have been another influence on the Howard character in Uncut Gems, but a different Hoffman role has been explicitly recognized instead. In the Metrograph interview, Josh Safdie reveals, “There’s a film that we kept recalling that we were talking about a few months ago and it’s Stephen Frears’ Hero with Geena Davis and Dustin Hoffman. The guy is so flawed, but you love him. This guy who just wanted to just do this thing, but he has these weird principles that he stands by.”
Inspired by the works of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, Hero follows Hoffman as a lowlife who saves a bunch of people from a plane crash but also steals from them. He can’t take credit for being a hero and becomes annoyed when a homeless guy he knows (Andy Garcia) steps up to receive the spotlight and reward for the incredible deed. Both of the main male characters are morally corrupt, and that’s what makes them so interesting. Of course, audiences want likable more than interesting, so Hero bombed at the box office. It’s not exactly on par with the actions of Howard in Uncut Gems, but Josh Safdie says it’s just one of those movies they watched as kids and “you can’t get over them.”
Easy Money (1983)
Rodney Dangerfield, who actually played Sandler’s grandfather (Lucifer) in Little Nicky, is the other Jewish celebrity discussed by the Safdies as a model for Howard in Uncut Gems., per the Cinema Scope interview. “What made [Sandler] so perfect for Howard, and why we wanted him from the beginning, was that even if he’s not likable, he’s lovable,” Josh Safdie explains. “He’s constantly making people laugh, making weird little jokes. He’s a Rodney Dangerfield in that regard, and Rodney was the reason we have Adam Sandler: he watched Rodney as a little kid.”
In Easy Money, Dangerfield’s first big movie on his own as a star, is the best evidence that the comedian shares some DNA with Sandler as Howard. Josh Safdie even told The AV Club, “The only other person who could have played this part is Rodney Dangerfield before his break in Easy Money. Like, eight or nine years before Easy Money.” The Uncut Gems protagonist isn’t as slovenly as a Dangerfield character, but he might as well be going around saying how he gets no respect despite being such a hotshot. In Easy Money, Dangerfield plays a man offered a $10 million inheritance if he can give up such vices as drinking and gambling. Of course, he has to fake his way through it. That’s how he wins.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
The Safdie brothers love John Cassavetes films. “Cassavetes is a god and a hero,” Josh Safdie says in a list of favorites for Criterion, spotlighting their special releases of the filmmaker’s work available at the time. “Bookie, Opening Night, Faces, Shadows, and the later-added Love Streams are film school for a hundred bucks. We watch the master turn actors into people and vice versa, and hold the feeling above anything else.”
You get that feeling with the Safdies with Uncut Gems, as well, and there’s a little bit of most of those Cassevetes classics in the makeup of the Safdies’ movie, too. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is obviously the closest to Uncut Gems in terms of the subject matter and the main character. Ben Gazzara stars in the crime film as a strip club owner who is constantly in debt to the mob because of a gambling habit. His potential way out of his situation, though, is different from Harold’s: he’s tasked with, you guessed it, killing a Chinese bookie. Can he make it through the night and settle everything without a hitch, unlike Howard at the end of his story? You’ll have to watch it and see.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Exorcist (1973)
Plenty of reviews and features about Uncut Gems have mentioned the opening of the Safdies’ movie as being reminiscent of the beginning of The Exorcist. Maybe even as an intentional homage. The newer movie kicks off with a prologue set in an Ethiopian mine as the rare, titular black opal is discovered. William Friedkin’s horror classic starts with an archaeological dig in Iraq that uncovers an ancient amulet. But the Safdies haven’t directly acknowledged the connection and even have named Friedkin’s Sorcerer as a link to Uncut Gems instead. Still, it’s undoubtedly part of their movie’s DNA.
Some critics also mention Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when addressing the opening of Uncut Gems, specifically regarding the transition from the opal to Howard’s colon. The sci-fi movie actually has been directly recognized as an influence on the Safdies movie. When that psychedelic moment comes up, Josh Safdie tells Matt Zoller Seitz in an interview for the Uncut Gems press notes: “2001, arguably one of the greatest movies ever made, was weirdly very inspiring in making this movie—the concept of the universe existing in each of us. We are actually the aliens. We are all these vessels for human wonder. We are all these individual monoliths. We all have these crazy stories to tell.”
Fun fact, though: as a reference for the VFX for the gem sequence, the Safdies used the sperm voyage from Look Who’s Talking.
The Moment of Truth (1965)
“We did watch The Moment of Truth by Francesco Rosi because we love the actual lenses that were used,” Benny Safdie admits in the Metrograph interview. Josh Safdie also reveals in a Little White Lies interview that they watched the movie at Criterion’s screening room in preparation and it informed the Passover seder scene. It’s about a poor farmer’s son who becomes a famous bullfighter, and real famous bullfighter Miguel ‘Miguelin’ Romero is the star. The Safdies love when films mix fiction with nonfiction elements — featuring real people like Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd as “themselves” in Uncut Gems — and they’re also especially fans of this Italian film’s cinematography.
The film, which the Safdies have acknowledged as a favorite in the aforementioned Criterion list (paired with Close-Up), comes up in a conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson for the A24 podcast. “It’s an awesome movie,” Josh Safdie tells the Punch-Drunk Love filmmaker. “And we watched it together, and [Uncut Gems DP Darius Khondji] did research and he found out they used this 360 C-lens. This 360 millimeter C lens, and like he searched, and he searched, and he found it…And he showed up with this red box and it was like, when he brought it to us it was like finding an alien carcass. He’s like ‘I got it,’ and then we, every once in a while he would be like, ‘Should we try the 360?’ And 360 is a long lens…”
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Speaking of films that mix fiction with nonfiction, Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves is another one of the Safdies’ longtime favorites. And Josh Safdie mentions it in the Cinema Scope interview with addressing how much they like infusing some form of realism into their own movies. He goes on to speak of an element of Uncut Gems that relates to the football stadium crowd:
“Uncut Gems was the nexus of our obsessions, starting with basketball, which is a sport that’s very manic and very up and down, but fusing it with the concept of realism, using the language of documentary to sidle up to the plot and not just support it, but almost affect it,” he says. “That’s why when the fair-use lawyers told us that we couldn’t change the outcome or chronology of the game, we loved those restrictions. We felt beholden [to] reality, which was helpful. We could write dialogue based on what actually happened in that game.”
Bicycle Thieves does specifically align well with Uncut Gems in an ancestral sense. While its tone is certainly not as intense, the feeling that Antonio must have while searching for his bicycle, which is his livelihood, is surely similar to Howard’s mindset throughout Uncut Gems. These are desperate men who need to recoup what they’ve specifically lost or else they’ve really lost everything. The difference is that, even if Antonio should have been more careful with his new and vitally essential possession, his fate is less his own doing than Howard’s gambling problems. We feel much more sorry for the man who is stolen from than the man who has bet his money away.
Additional Suggested Viewing (as cited by the Safdies):
Dog Day Afternoon
The French Connection
A Hole in the Head
The King of Comedy
King of the Gypsies
The King of New York
Mikey and Nicky
Paid in Full
Saturday Night Fever
A Stranger Among Us
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre