This article contains spoilers for Uncut Gems, which is on Netflix so get on it.
You’re just over two hours into Uncut Gems. You’ve watched Adam Sandler’s Howard, a slimy yet sympathetic gambling addict, lose over and over again. He owes many people money, including his brother-in-law, and spins so many lies that you and perhaps he himself can’t keep up anymore. The tension has mounted over these 126 minutes, and your sphincter has been clenched the entire time.
But then he scores his biggest cash-out: $1.2 million on a Boston Celtics game. He not only has enough money to pay off his debts, but he also has his mistress Julia and piles of cash awaiting him at the Mohegan Sun.
He won. You can unclench.
Except, Howard doesn’t win in the end. He’s shot in the head seconds later by his brother-in-law’s crony. Then, the crony shoots the brother-in-law, and loots Howard’s livelihood — his jewelry shop. You were wrong to unclench, to let your anxiety mellow even for a moment.
That’s what watching Uncut Gems is like: It doesn’t let you exhale, even when you think it’s safe. Very much like 2020.
Uncut Gems has captured the uniquely tense zeitgeist of this year, and that’s been reflected by the enduring popularity of its memes. “This movie has been this anxiety-inducing thing in pop culture to relate to in a very anxiety-inducing year,” said Amanda Brennan, meme librarian and trend expert at Tumblr.
Even if you haven’t seen Gems, you’ve likely come across GIFs and screenshots on social media:
For , a principal lecturer on film and media production at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Uncut Gems hinges on Sandler’s relatability — he doesn’t know what’s coming, and neither do we.
“As the title hints at, Uncut Gems is a movie that seems very raw on the outside but hides a hidden bright spot, or ‘gem’ in the form of Sandler’s virtuoso performance,” Fortunato told Mashable. “Some critics have suggested that his character is not sympathetic, yet I would argue that he is relatable and that makes him sympathetic.”
In Gems, Sandler plays the “lovable loser” as he did in so many other of his roles, Fortunato said. This time, however, the loser is stuck in a high-risk drama and not a screwball comedy.
Lovable losers are indeed a well-loved group on Tumblr, said Brennan. On the platform, where 48 percent of active users are Gen Z, users have clung to Howard’s moments of absurdity. Two examples Brennan pointed out are Howard not knowing about The Weeknd — a ludicrous notion to members of Gen Z — and his bedazzled Furby, which users have sought out to recreate.
“This small detail is so absurd and weird, but…it’s something comforting and redeeming about him,” said Brennan.
Howard, while in serious need of redemption, is like many of us: trying to beat an unbeatable system. “That’s what Sandler’s character of Howard Ratner faces,” Fortunato argued, “a world that continually knocks him down, despite his own misplaced confidence that he can somehow win.”
It’s fair to say that many of us had misplaced confidence at the start of this year. We bet on 2020 like Howard placed bets that the gem would be a million-dollar payout at auction.
Of course Gems is not the only 2019 release the internet still clings to — nor the only one to grapple with current societal ills. Take Parasite, for example, is a stark reminder of the realities under late-stage capitalism, as are the memes that came out of it.
One popular Parasite meme is an image of lower-class Kim Ki-taek chauffeuring the rich Choi Yeon-gyo. The shot shows Kim Ki-taek’s scowl, a representation of communal anger at the wealthy class. This meme-ing of that particular shot came after news broke that Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2017.
Uncut Gems, meanwhile, captures our collective anxiety, the asshole-clenching anguish of not being able to anticipate what will happen next. Somehow directors Josh and Benny Safdie managed to bottle our collective agony before the pandemic even began. In Howard, we see our own stubborn belief that what happens will somehow be in our favor, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“I think one of the things that makes this character so relatable, and thus ‘memeable,’ is that he has the confidence, misplaced as though it might be, to keep plugging away,” said Fortunato. “When he says things like ‘This is how I win’ or ‘Holy shit I’m gonna cum’ it’s because he thinks he’s winning, even if the audience knows he’s not.”
“You could talk about that feeling without talking about the feeling.”
We, the audience, can laugh at Howard’s downfall while also empathizing with him — because at some level, we do want this cheater/compulsive gambler/con man to win. We want ourselves to win, too. And memes let us express that without making us say it explicitly.
“You’re taking this stressful movie that had this very anxiety-inducing experience and you’re translating that into something memetic that you can then share to say, ‘You saw this movie, oh my god, you’ll get this meme,'” Brennan explained. “And then you have that gut-shared knowledge that you both have seen the movie, you’re both on the same page, and you could talk about that feeling without talking about the feeling.”
At his low (or at least one of them), Howard is crushingly relatable. He tells Julia, “I’m so sad, I’m so fucked up” — just one of many lines that’s circulated on the internet since the film’s release:
In this so sad, so fucked up year, we needed a character like Howard to say it. We needed someone to root for and hate, to dare to beat the odds and be a jerk while doing it. Even the last image of Howard alive — before he gets shot — speaks to his “fake it ’til you make it” bravado, Fortunato said.
“He’s wearing a big grin on his face. He thinks he’s won. He’s about to find out he’s going to lose it all, but it happens so fast, he doesn’t even know it,” said Fortunato. “He literally dies with a smile on his face. Wouldn’t we all want to go out like that in some ways?”