For much of the country, a couple of months in de facto quarantine probably had a lot of people second-guessing where they’ve chosen to live, even if they once felt secure with that choice. How many city-dwellers have wondered they might be better in the suburbs, where residents might conceivably pack their cars with a month’s worth of groceries, hang out in their own backyards, and at least experience a greater variety of walls closing in on them? And maybe some suburban folks think longingly of the multiple grocery/convenience stores within walking distance of so many city apartments, alleviating concerns about massive crowds converging on a single location. Anyone unafflicted with COVID-19 can use this pandemic to re-evaluate stereotypes about either city or suburban living, and may also participate in the default cultural – movies we can all stream – to further explore this idea. I refer specifically to Uncut Gems, which is coming to Netflix on May 25th, and Bad Education, which is available on various permutations of HBO.
There are plenty of great movies that take place in the suburbs, but there are also plenty that indulge in lazy cliches about either the innocence and wonder of a suburban upbringing, or the dark heart of America that lurks beneath it. In other words, these films lazily explore the cliches buried underneath the different cliches. Uncut Gems and Bad Education are both notable for how they specifically address the relationship between the suburbs of Long Island and the metropolis of New York (and really, there’s little that New Yorkers prize more than being specifically addressed). Bad Education is even based on a true story, which has been subject to the usual streamlining and fact-fudging in the name of good drama. Those changes don’t rankle because streamlining is a natural fit for director Cory Finley, who made the similarly attuned suburban-girl thriller Thoroughbreds. His newer film addresses a scandal in the public school district of Roslyn, Long Island, wherein superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) stole millions of dollars as they labored to turn Roslyn’s district into one of the country’s best-rated.
The movie eventually conveys that Frank feels he’s in an unspoken contract with the town of Roslyn: He’ll do what he needs to do to keep improving the school system’s reputation and citizens will look the other way on any malfeasance, because a highly rated public school benefits students with lofty post-secondary aspirations, along with their parents who like to assume their children are gifted, plus anyone who own property in the area, and more. Though he misjudges the scale of what he can get away with, Frank isn’t entirely wrong. Along with a yard and plenty of rooms, a great public school system is a huge suburban status symbol, an obvious and tantalizing justification for leaving the city. Though some of his motivations remain opaque, it’s clear that Frank correctly perceives the people of Roslyn as investors in the town’s sterling reputation, and figures he can take care of his own needs while taking care of theirs.
The movie reveals Frank’s corruption methodically, concurrently peeling back other lies he’s told to his colleagues, like the fictional dead wife he’s inserted into his personal narrative to cover up his homosexuality. Having an actor as recognizable and charismatic in Hugh Jackman in this role could be a miscalculation; it’s easy to see how a big star could overpower the exactitude of Finley’s well-wrought storytelling, or make obvious pains of uglying themselves up to play a suburbanite. Instead, Jackman gives the performance of his career (or at least, the performance of his career that doesn’t involve adamantium claws). Frank buffs and polishes himself to present a sleek and successful image for Roslyn, involving hair dye, blotches at the edge of his face from plastic surgery procedures, and gunky-looking health-food drinks in place of proper meals; it’s like a discomfiting parody of the movie-star regimens usually kept conveniently off-screen (and to which Jackman is no stranger, having gotten into Wolverine shape so many times over the years).
Hugh Jackman turns out to be especially good, even weirdly touching, as a guy who is putting constant, expensive effort into, well, presenting himself like he could be played by Hugh Jackman. A lot of movies about the suburbs wink at the effort it takes to maintain well-manicured lawns, scrubbed cul-de-sacs, and the image of domestic bliss. Bad Education isn’t interested in the easy targets of superficial image maintenance; the movie understands how high the stakes are for a town that wants to appear both excellent and effortless. Frank is selling an image of Roslyn as a place for regular people who are just naturally deserving of success, a kind of epic-scale false modesty. What better environment for a movie star to flourish?
Adam Sandler is a more familiar suburban presence in movies; from the mid-2000s until pretty recently, most of his self-produced Happy Madison comedies cast him as a suburban family man, semi-crankily presiding over a lush house with a big driveway and plenty of adorable moppets running around. For years, this played as a bizarre equivocation of Sandler’s regular-guy charms with his extremely-rich-and-famous-guy largesse; he seemed to be demanding both an accurate portrayal of his own cushy lifestyle and a retention of his middle-class cred.
Howard Ratner, the degenerate gambler, incompetent family man, and upper-class striver Sandler plays in Uncut Gems, isn’t wildly different from other Sandler Dad roles: He’s got the daughters, the fancy house, the assortment of weirdos on his periphery, and some maturity issues. But if writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie betray an obvious affection for their hopeless lead, they also don’t insist on making him relatable, at least not in a way that flatters anyone who would relate to him. Howard is on a self-destructive tear, using his gem dealership to borrow money, move it around, parlay it into absurdly specific sports bets.He seems to think his schemes will somehow catapult him to that final level of prosperity where he doesn’t need to worry about money anymore.
Howard’s gambling addiction makes literal the idea that no amount of money will ever be enough for this to actually happen. If Uncut Gems isn’t explicitly about class warfare, it certainly implies that the Ratners’ suburban comfort, however precarious, comes from a combination of privilege and utter recklessness, which Howard is happy to rebrand as athletic hustle. Like Frank, he’s not entirely wrong, even though he’s in the wrong. Scamming everyone around him does take a lot of hustle, where every luxury starts to feel (at least to Howard) like a tooth-and-nail battle. It’s not for nothing that a point of contention between Howard and some gangsters looking for their money is, hilariously, whether or not he has resurfaced his swimming pool. It’s especially cathartic to see Sandler mixed up in all this.In between his boy-man malcontents and sensitive weirdos, he’s spent a lot of time playing guys who clearly just had their swimming pool resurfaced, and think nothing of it. (His first prominent movie role was in Airheads, a slacker riff on Dog Day Afternoon, and he played a pool cleaner who also dreamed of glory.)
Uncut Gems and Bad Education both pull off the tricky business of depicting suburban pettiness –the gossip, the small talk, the obligatory social calls–without resorting to cheap shots or caricatures. There’s also no implication of suburban values, or that city living would solve their characters’ problems. Frank and Howard are both living in a kind of prison, whether they’re keeping up with their Long Island neighbors or escaping to their spare apartments in the city, where Howard keeps a mistress and Frank keeps his same-sex life partner. The unintentional parallels with the pandemic are clear: Mental fixations know no geographic boundary. The striving for both status and comfort are part of suburban living, at least according to Finley and the Safdies, but they are too interested in their characters’ respective psychologies to fold them into a wholesale condemnation. Cities and their suburbs may have their own distinctive, regional sensibilities, but they’re nothing compared to the lines we keep redrawing in our heads.
Uncut Gems will be available to stream on Netflix starting May 25th.
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