Good Time (2017)

Good Time movie poster

Watching their movies out of order, Good Time was the previous Safdie Brothers film, another criminal thrill feature released years before Uncut Gems.

Good Time features two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie). Nick’s brain is non-typical and his brother Connie manipulates him into a bank heist that leaves Nick locked up for the crime while Connie spends the rest of the film trying to free his brother.

Unlike Uncut Gems‘ Howard (Adam Sandler), Connie seems to actually care about someone besides himself, and there are few enough side characters that everyone gets to have a moment. Connie’s girlfriend Loren, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, does a terrific job depicting someone who is trapped in a bad relationship with both Connie and her familial relationship with her mother.

Ultimately, this film is better for the space it gives those side characters, their realistic portrayal helps the world of Good Time feels more real than Uncut Gems. The spaces the characters visit and inhabit are also true to real city spaces. A Dominos to hide inside with a pissed off manager, a shitty local bank to rob, the home of some nice people Connie takes advantage of will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to pay for food and find the energy to clean, even the amusement park doesn’t feel fake.

Good Time also comments on stereotypes. Dash (Barkhad Abdi) is a Black security guard that Connie beats into unconsciousness, and doses with enough acid to make The Undertaker hallucinate for a year. Connie races to Dash’s home to conduct business in order to get money for bailing out Nick, but audibly remarks that the apartment is actually well furnished, and it is. This is an apartment that Dash cared about, and he is added to the list of people that Connie undeservedly steps on in order to help Nick.

There is no existence under capitalism that doesn’t involve stepping on other people, and that is true in the fiction of Good Time as well. In the opening, the brother’s bank heist was going well, but the bank teller hides an explosive dye pack in the money bag. Both risking her life, if the brothers-as-robbers were armed during the heist and they realized what was in the money bag, and when the dye pack goes off it caused an unintended car crash that could have been fatal for any pedestrians caught in the way. Just to protect the bottom-line of a bank whose money is insured to begin with.

The characters of Good Time are interesting, the world feels more realistic than other thrillers including the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and the movie has an important message behind the thrills about capitalism even if most people will miss it. I like a lot about this movie, but I will note there is a particularly disturbing scene where Connie attempts to sleep with a sixteen-year-old girl in order to distract her before the local TV news program gives a report on the bank robbery. Fortunately, no clothes come off before they are interrupted, but it is another incident where Connie feels he has to do something in order to not create another witness to his flight from “justice.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems’ Poster

Uncut Gems is a very wild thriller. If it were a book, it’d be a “page turner” that has the slightest of statements on how awful it is to step on people who have been stepped on for generations and how bad gambling addiction is.

As with all things that depict some terrible fiction I wonder how many people will watch this and think “gambling is fun” despite the punishment that Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) goes through, and more importantly what his loved ones go through. Sandler’s performance is kind of amazing from someone who is best known for his comedic roles, and those comedy films have been critical failures for years. As Howard Ratner, Sandler is a character that seems to feel no difficulty in putting his family through hell and destroying their lives even if Howard ostensibly loves them and tells them so, it’s clear that this isn’t enough, he isn’t really there for them. The words Howard says when he tells his kids how proud he is are hollow because the film is telling us Howard cares more about gambling than them.

Deriving entertainment from “what will happen next” in Uncut Gems is disturbing. What happens next is always someone getting hurt, terrified, or ruined because of Howard’s gambling addiction and we don’t find out what the consequences are for them, because the film is almost entirely focused on Howard’s perspective.

One of the saddest things about exciting movies like Uncut Gems is the fiction that the protagonist’s behavior is exciting and successful and romanticized. Howard would be very successful at gambling, he doesn’t lose as often as he should even when taking bets that others think are losing bets, if it weren’t for the meddling of another character in the film Howard would succeed, he would be rich. Ultimately, his gambling is a problem only in that the gambling introduces bad people into Howard’s life, but the film says it is those people who cause the worst of the problems, not Howard. I think that is sad, and much like other films about crime it still, pathetically, has a positive outlook on the activities it depicts… if only it weren’t for the violent criminals that get in the way. Much like The Irishman, another recent film that depicts bad people ruining the lives of their families, Uncut Gems makes its protagonist’s life a thrill. The people that suffer along the way? Uncut Gems doesn’t give a shit about them.

As a fiction, Uncut Gems is fine, it is exciting, it is ultimately as meaningless as the latest Marvel film in messaging and challenges practically nothing the viewer already thinks. In the universe of Uncut Gems, women are almost entirely brainless sex objects who only exist in their relation to men, white men are the functional actors but are failures at parenting. Racial minorities in Uncut Gems can only fulfill roles as athletes, sales people, and musicians obsessed with jewelry, money, sex, and success. Few characters besides Howard are anything but obstacles to his obtaining success, or money, or sex, and that’s the only bad thing that we are allowed to see in him.

I like Uncut Gems, but of course I like Uncut Gems. It is a movie built for me, a white male adult.

Rating: 3 out of 5.