Ignore the Dumb Title: Good Time Has Much to Say

GOOD TIME (2017)
Directed by Josh and Bennie Safdie
A24 Pictures, 101 minutes, R (violence, language, sexuality)

This overlooked film was nominated for the Palme D’Or and then disappeared in a flash. That’s puzzling as much of it is quite good. It is, however, encumbered with a terrible and misleading title. The moment one says, “bank robbery film” and “good time,” most folks will conjure images of a goofy slapstick caper film. Good Time is a caper film, but it’s more like Of Mice and Men mashed with Dog Day Afternoon than cheap laughs fare such as Going In Style or Quick Change.

We know we’re into something different from the opening scene. Nick Nikas (co-director Bennie Safdie) sits vacant-eyed across from a psychiatrist who unsuccessfully tries to engage him in a word association test. It’s not that Nick is being uncooperative, it’s that the exercise is too hard for him. Into the office bursts his brother “Connie” (Constantine), who yells at the shrink, tears up his notes, and leads his brother out of the office.

We next meet the brothers wearing rubber masks and trying to rob a bank. It goes wrong and they flee, with Connie (Robert Pattinson) yelling out instructions to his brother. Connie gets away, but Nick is apprehended when he runs straight through a plate glass door. From there we switch to Connie’s attempt to raise $10,000 for his brother’s bail, as he is worried that Nick will not fare well in jail. He’s right; Nick is badly beaten and hospitalized.

It is here we get the caper part of the film. Connie—his hair hastily cut and bleached, as the robbery money had a dye pack that would have made him easy to identify—spirits a sedated, bandaged, guarded man from the hospital only to discover it’s a different criminal, Ray (Buddy Duress), not Nick. From there it’s a wild night of flight, an encounter with a teenage accomplice (Taliah Webster), a bottle filled with valuable LSD, pursuit through an after-hours amusement park, and more.

Are the caper scenes funny? Let’s just say that the humor is more in the vein of Reservoir Dogs, but without the witty repartee. By the time the night is over, the film is more tragic than goofy, and more violent than slapstick. The overall look of the action is like colorized film noir, the garish offerings of New York City stores and the lurid lights of the amusement park striking us like paintballs between the eyes.

Rex Reed hated all of this and called the film “pointless toxicity” and a “totally surreal look at people in crisis.” My rejoinder is, “Exactly!” minus his “pointless” judgment. We will meet Nick again before the film ends and it slowly dawns on us that virtually every character in the film is handicapped by happenstance. The contrast of bright colors and darkness underscores the gap between the American Dream and the hazy nightmare through which our marginal protagonists fail to negotiate.

I am not usually a Robert Pattinson fan, but he’s very good as Connie, a man much smarter than the people in his family and neighborhood, but not smart enough to overcome the fact that life’s deck is stacked against him. Duress plays to the hilt his part as a small-time hood whose foul mouth is the toughest thing about him. There is also a delicious small part for Jennifer Jason Leigh, Connie’s putative girlfriend, Corey. She shows up acting as dumb as a rock and looking as shabby as a cast-off rag doll, both being pretty close to true (for her character).

Taliah Webster is cool as cucumber as a cynical black kid who says she’s 16, looks 14, and has seen enough to be jaded about cops. Webster’s brief make-out scene with Pattinson—consistent with the plot—raised eyebrows. It may not have been the smartest thing to write into the script given current sensibilities. Then again, it might also be an honest look at what goes on among the underclass. In either case, as good as Webster is, her character needed a deeper back-story to clarify her motives.

Acting wise, Safdie steals our heart. His Nick is not merely mentally challenged; he is so severely handicapped that he is like a loyal dog that follows Connie’s commands. Though Connie loves his brother deeply, he doesn’t run a sheltered workshop, which is precisely what Nick needs. In the end we are left wondering what Nick’s future will be. I could not imagine a bright one for Nick, Connie, Corey, or anyone else in their immediate circle.

Does this sound like a film that should be titled Good Time? It’s far from a screwy comedy, but it’s worth watching for many other reasons. That includes the unsettling ones.

Rob Weir

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