Tag Archives: Josh Safdie

Fear and Loathing in Long Island

Uncut Gems

by Matt Weiner

There’s something acutely familiar right now about watching a consummate New York macher unable to help himself as he pursues more and more wealth, drawing everyone around him into his increasingly unstable house of cards until it all collapses.

But Uncut Gems, the latest panic attack from the Safide brothers (Josh and Benny, who also co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein), captures so much more than our current moment. For one, there’s the career-great performance from Adam Sandler. His take on Howard “Howie” Ratner buzzes seamlessly from typical Sandler ease to pathetic helplessness to manic moments of triumph.

Howie is a fonfer extraordinaire—a bullshit artist whose jewelry business in the Diamond District functions to help him continually feed his sports betting debts and keep his mistress (Julia Fox) happy with a Manhattan love nest. Whatever scant love and money are left over go to Howie’s family on Long Island (a point that sets up maybe the greatest music cue of the year, and one of the funniest moments in a movie that’s full of them).

When Howie gets caught up in his latest round of juggling debts, family drama and especially a rare Ethiopian black opal—a mysterious MacGuffin that transfixes anyone who sees it—the race is on to come up with enough money to appease his debtors while chasing the high of that one big score.

As Uncut Gems takes place in the long-ago days of 2012, that score revolves around a Celtics playoffs run. The Safdies throw a bone to New York sports with a Mike Francesa cameo, but it’s Kevin Garnett playing himself who almost steals the movie as one of Howie’s more fateful customers. Celebrity and proximity to power infuse Howie’s life almost as much as gambling—the Weeknd also puts in a memorable turn as an important buyer, and lends his moody, drug-fueled R&B to the soundtrack as well.

That prevailing mood is a defining feature of Uncut Gems. There’s the nonstop anxiety, but the Safdies and Sandler punctuate it with plenty of humor—and pathos. The Safdies are in a class of their own when it comes to drawing you in and making you care deeply about terrible people. Howie might be enjoying more outward success than Connie from the Safdies’ last movie Good Time, but it’s just as illusory. All debts must be paid.

And as with Good Time, the Safdies serve up subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders that our actions have consequences, even for those who seem to have put together a successful life around assiduously evading them.

The film opens with a scene of misery thousands of miles away from Howie’s cocooned suburban Long Island life. It’s a non-sequitur worthy of the Coen brothers, our other great chroniclers of anxiety and morality.

But the threat goes from menace to promise that none of us are immune from consequence, and the Potemkin lifestyles of the elite are built on shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for it all to come crashing down.

Brother’s Keeper

Good Time

by Hope Madden

Regardless of the film’s title, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) does not appear to be having a Good Time.

Connie is trying to keep the system away from his mentally impaired brother Nick (Benny Safdie, who also co-writes and co-directs). He uses what means he has, none of which are legal.

After a botched bank robbery sees the brothers separated and Nick incarcerated, Connie engages in ever riskier behavior in a desperate attempt to save his brother.

Safdie, alongside his real brother and filmmaking partner Josh, once again explores an urban underbelly. The two have proven with films like their 2014 festival favorite Heaven Knows What that they can tell a deeply human story set on the fringe of society.

Good Time is a bit more high energy than Heaven Knows What, but once again the Safdies create a world that’s simultaneously alien and authentic. It’s hard to believe people live like this, and yet every moment of Connie’s increasingly erratic evening rings true. Nuts, but true.

Pattinson delivers his strongest performance yet. His glittering vampire days long behind him, he’s shown versatility in recent projects including Cosmopolis, The Rover and Maps to the Stars. Here he balances a seedy survival instinct with heart-wrenching loyalty and tenderness.

Everything Connie touches, he poisons. In Pattinson’s hands, he’s righteous enough to believe in his own cause, even when it means convincing himself that he’s protecting someone – his brother, a teenage girl, another lowlife looking for a score – who’d be better off without him.

Benny Safdie impresses in front of the camera as well as behind. His understated performance shows no sign of artificiality, and his skill as a filmmaker has never shined more brightly.

His gift for pacing that matches the hustle – the constant shifting, shuffling and scheming needed for survival – keeps Good Time both exhilarating and exhausting.

The film showcases the kind of desperation that fueled many a New York indie of the Seventies, Midnight Cowboy among them. The urgency of a quick con that could lead to freedom but will undoubtedly end in tragedy seems the only kind of choice Connie ever makes.

It’s a grim film full of bruised people, but it never loses hope entirely.