Since it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, the Safdie brothers’ man-on-the-run, darkly comedic thriller Good Time has been hailed as something of a return to classic New York movies, i.e., from before the Giuliani cleanup, when Martin Scorsese was experimenting with cinema on the streets. In this film, Ben Safdie plays mentally challenged Nick Nikas, and Robert Pattinson affects a Queens accent to play Nick’s brother Connie Nikas in a kind of mashup of After Hours and Of Mice and Men. Most of the story takes place within a tense 24-hour period, as the characters — Connie, especially — race through his borough, interacting with its inhabitants. These people — an African-born security guard, a Jamaican grandmother, a hospitalized drug dealer — are shorthand for the “real” New York, and just as in so many other “classic New York movies,” the Safdies shine a grimy bare-bulb light on them. But if the real NYC is that diverse, how is it that Mean Streets cinema is always led by manipulative and violent men?
Pattinson is nearly unrecognizable under a scraggly beard and greasy mop of hair, with the nervous charisma of a street hustler. After a botched bank robbery, Connie gets caught up in a long succession of detours and coincidences on his way to bail his bro out of jail. Whenever he’s cornered, Connie’s eyes dew up and jitter — he’s like a fight-or-flight chihuahua in a big-dog park.
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Connie even confesses to a girl, Crystal (Taliah Webster), that he believes he was a dog in a past life. A detail like this usually is intended to activate sympathy for a character, in this case to suggest his innocence and that he only acts with aggression when under attack. The Safdie bros have said that Connie is a good guy because he’s often using his brain instead of guns, but the victims of his brainpower are a lot of women and people of color who are portrayed as dumb punch lines and entirely dispensable.
When I hear the term “classic New York movie,” I think of gritty streets, in-too-deep detectives and colorful characters, but most of all, I think of men. These films usually feature a man who must find the courage to “beat” the city or perish in the effort. Think Death Wish, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, The French Connection. Female-led classic New York dramas are much more rare, like Bette Gordon’s Variety, and even that film is about navigating a city that belongs to men.
Good Time, like so many other films of its ilk, revels in its ugly male characters. The Safdie brothers try to squeeze dark humor from these guys but also seem to have no awareness of how repulsive they’ve made their lead. We’re supposed to laugh when 30-something Connie kisses 15-year-old Crystal and tries to fuck her just to distract her from his mug shot on the TV — do I have to remind people that statutory rape is rape? That Crystal happens to be black and that the filmmakers chose to over-sexualize her was not lost on me. We’re also supposed to laugh when Connie beats the shit out of a security guard (Barkhad Abdi), who is also black, before Connie’s partner in crime for the night (Buddy Duress) dumps a pop bottle of LSD in his mouth. Every punch and every dude yelling nonsensically just to be loud and disorienting tried my patience.
And with a relentless synth score from Oneohtrix Point Never, which pummels you from start to finish, the film is screaming in our faces, “Yo, can you even HANDLE this REALISM, bro? We’re so AUTHENTIC! We’re so LOUD!” Silence is golden and also mostly absent from this movie. As is a character we can root for. Fuck. Is this classic New York?