Sometimes it’s a compliment to say that a product offers two things in one, as in the old Certs commercial (it’s a candy mint! It’s a breath mint!). But in filmmaking, the trick is a lot harder to pull off, with exhibit A for that proposition being the latest Ben and Joshua Safdie movie Good Time. It’s one movie up to about the hour mark, and is reasonably successful up to that point, with a story that could have been brought to a satisfying conclusion within the normal running time for a feature film.
Then, for reasons known only to the filmmakers, Good Time veers off into an entirely different movie, featuring the same central character but with quite a different tone as well as new characters and a brand new story line. The Safdies try to wrap up the first story at the end of the second, but it feels like they arbitrarily tacked a coda onto the second story line rather than letting it develop through its own internal logic.
The first, and better, story features a de-glammed Robert Pattinson as Connie Nikas, a low-rent crook and all-around parasite who lives only in the moment and will exploit anyone and anything to get what he wants. He does seem to care for his brother Nick (Ben Safdie), who has some kind of a mental disability as well as being hard of hearing, but without making the effort to comprehend who his brother is or what he needs. I’m no expert in mental health, but I’m pretty sure that involving Nick in Connie’s criminal enterprises, when Nick is not capable of making even the most elementary decisions for himself, is probably not in Nick’s best interests.
When we first meet the Nikas brothers, they’re robbing a bank while wearing latex masks that make them appear to be black. It’s the first of many subtle ways that the film reminds us of the white privilege the brothers enjoy; another is who the police trust, and who is immediately regarded with suspicion, by the police. Things go badly wrong in the robbery (there’s a scene that could have been exploited for humor, Woody Allen style, in which Connie and the bank clerk exchange handwritten notes), due in part to Connie’s greed and obstinacy, and one result is that Nick is arrested and placed, under guard, in a hospital.
Connie is not one to quit while he’s behind, so he decides to break his brother out of the hospital (as is typical of Connie, he has no concern for the other patients or staff—he can only see what he wants in any situation), but that effort goes even more wrong. This is the start of the second movie, which is much more slowly paced and could have developed into something interesting were it not forcibly grafted on to the first story, and if the screenwriters (Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie) raised a finger in the service of making it seem plausible. As it stands, this second story relies so thoroughly on a string of improbabilities that I lost my patience long before the end credits rolled.
In the second story, Connie is shown kindness by a black woman and her teenage daughter, underlining what most people know—the people with the least to give are often the most willing to share it. Of course, all Connie does is exploit them for his own purposes, but in the process the daughter (Taliah Webster, in a very promising film debut) reveals several things about her life that show why she is so easily manipulated by Connie. This brief glimpse of growing up female also suggests how Connie’s girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) came to be the way she is. While both actresses are very good in small roles, we never get to know much about them, because they remain bit players in the male characters’ story.
If you can overlook the many problems with Good Time’s plot, there are a lot of things to like about it. The first is the filmmakers’ unmistakable style, which offers a non-tourist view of New York City that feels true to life (and I’m speaking as someone who lived there for more than a decade). The first half of the film in particular maintains so breathless a pace that watching it becomes a visceral experience, a choice that not coincidentally keeps you from thinking too much about anything you are seeing on the screen. The acting is quite good as well, including Pattinson (no trace of the beautiful vampire, or the Hogwarts schoolboy, is present in his performance), Barkhad Abdi (the head pirate in Captain Phillips) as a security guard, and Peter Verby as Nick’s psychiatrist. | Sarah Boslaugh