I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox. As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film. At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur. Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.
2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career. Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style). Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack). She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray. Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor. It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker. It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly. Julia Fox is the real deal.
Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them. It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online. It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat. Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.” In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions. It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience. Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).
There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way. In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now. Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street. Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me. It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O. More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance. It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled. Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.
Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox. She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more. It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.