Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Uncertainty (independent, © 2008, rel. 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Uncertainty turned out to be a production by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the real-life Gay couple who made the marvelous 2001 neo-noir The Deep End, a remake of Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment in which the straight daughter of the central character was turned into a Gay son — a great movie and one of the few recent attempts at noir to capture the moral ambiguity of the originals while at the same time updating the genre enough to make it credible in the modern era. Alas, Uncertainty was hardly in the same league as The Deep End, perhaps because this script was a McGehee-Siegel original instead of one based on a previous film that was itself an adaptation of a novel (Elizabeth Saxnay Holding’s The Blank Wall); it’s an oddball combination of Dangerous Corner and Run, Lola, Run which deals with two possible fates for the central characters, Bobby Thompson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his girlfriend Kate (Lynn Collins).

As the film opens they’re walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (by now I’m wary of any film about angst-ridden characters that takes place in New York for fear it’ll just be warmed-over Woody Allen — though whatever the problems with Uncertainty, that isn’t one of them) and they flip a coin, then each tears off and starts running down the bridge’s walkway, in opposite directions, ultimately meeting at the bottom. They then divide into two couples, labeled “Green” and “Yellow” and dressed in green and yellow clothes, driving green and yellow cars (the “green” version actually has a car of their own while the “yellow” version is forced to use taxis — Yellow Cabs, natch — and subways) and moving in largely green and yellow settings, a neat device that enables us to tell the two Bobbys and Kates apart — though I must confess I was in a state of uncertainty myself throughout the film as to whether these were supposed to be the same people or two different couples with similar names and appearances. Anyway, the “green” Bobby and Kate decide to attend a Fourth of July party with Kate’s family — including her scapegrace sister Sophie, played by the marvelous Olivia Thirlby (who played a similar best-friend role in Juno and was the one redeeming feature in the otherwise unwatchable The Wackness, but she’s pretty much wasted here and I might have liked Uncertainty better if Thirlby had played Lynn Collins’ role[s]) — while the “yellow” ones decide to stay in the city and instead attend an urban party hosted by a friend from their own generation.

The “yellow” Bobby and Kate find a cell phone someone left in their cab and start calling the numbers stored on it as part of a Good Samaritan effort to see whom it belonged to and make arrangements to return it — only they start getting callbacks from people with names like Pedro and Dimitri (two Dimitris, in fact), and when one Dimitri orders a hit on the other and Bobby and Kate see one Dimitri shot down in front of the restaurant they’re supposed to meet him at by an Asian hit man hired by the other Dimitri, they realize they’re in over their heads and, in their first even remotely sensible act all movie, decide to turn the phone in to the police. Only a bored receptionist at the police desk inside New York City Hall tells them they have to wait for a sergeant who’s out, and they get tired of waiting and are stimulated by a call offering them $500,000 for the return of the phone to try to sell it for a similar sum to the surviving Dimitri, who instead of paying them decides to send his Asian hit man after them to assassinate them and recover the phone. We receive a clue via a Web site Bobby and Kate encounter that the phone figures prominently in an urban corruption scheme involving the head of the city’s lottery (which begs the question why they don’t look for the name of the prosecutor involved in the case and turn the phone over to him), and they hatch an elaborate scheme to sell the phone in a location with a lot of security and cameras around.

So they pick a branch of the Chase bank (which is inexplicably open on the Fourth of July!) and rent a safety-deposit box, hoping to use it to deposit their own ill-gotten gains without running afoul of the laws requiring bank officials to report depositors of large sums of cash to the authorities — only the scheme forces them to sleep outdoors all night and meet Dimitri in the bank the next morning. True to form, Dimitri doesn’t show but sends his hit man instead, leading Bobby and Kate to run for their lives into and out of old tenement buildings and across New York rooftops until they’re finally chased to the Brooklyn Bridge — the story coming full circle. Meanwhile the “green” Bobby and Kate have encountered far less life-threatening but still significant issues of their own — the big one being that Kate is pregnant and they don’t know whether and how to tell her heavy-duty Latino family, and they’re also uncertain over whether to keep the baby or have an abortion — and the two couples end up on the Brooklyn Bridge at the same time. I kept expecting them to turn out to be two separate couples, only coincidentally having identical names and similar appearances, and for the hit man to blow away the “green” Bobby and Kate out of mistaken identity. Instead the film just ends there, presenting with all the obviousness of a 1950’s “audio-visual” educational film the moral that if your girlfriend’s family invites you for the Fourth of July, you’d better damned well go or you’re going to end up targeted for murder by vicious gangsters.

McGehee and Siegel add one more parallelism to their plot lines: both couples are Good Samaritans who can’t resist trying to help others — the “green” Bobby and Kate pick up a limping dog off the street and adopt it (so they’re going to have to “parent” both a baby and a dog — oh, great) — but the film ultimately doesn’t work, partly because it feels more like a technical exercise than a heartfelt story and partly because the “green” plot line is so much less interesting than the “yellow” one. At least Dangerous Corner — a marvelous, and little-known, RKO programmer from 1934 based on a J. B. Priestley play — didn’t intercut the two separate fates of its characters; instead it presented one plot line and then the other (and the gimmick in that was a burned-out tube on their radio, which in one plot line stayed burned out and in the other was replaced because they happened to have another one on hand — the idea being that, not being able to divert themselves with the music from the radio, the guests at a weekend party had to talk to each other and in the process they let slip their real feelings for each other and, in particular, who was cheating on whom sexually).

The “yellow” plot line of Uncertainty could have made a quite exciting Run, Lola, Run-style thriller if the “green” plot line weren’t dragging it down — after a while I found myself groaning every time McGehee and Siegel cut back from “yellow” to “green” — though even within the confines of the “yellow” story the characters were behaving so stupidly I alternated between rooting for the “yellow” Bobby and Kate to survive and make their sting, and hoping the hit man would hurry up and off them before they did anything else annoying and risible. Uncertainty is that most frustrating of all movies — a bad film that comes heartbreakingly close to being a good one, one that seems to come so close to working as its filmmakers intended that you find yourself sympathetic to it even though you don’t really like it.