Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Safdie brothers are enjoying unprecedented success with their film Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, which—thanks to Sandler’s presence—is enjoying a very wide release (among its theaters in the area are the Beacon, the Egyptian, and the Varsity). The attention is deserved, but the Safdies were doing interesting things before this, which Scarecrow, naturally, covers.
Among these is a film I lauded when it opened here in 2010, Daddy Longlegs (which IMDb lists as Go Get Some Rosemary, so go figure). Writing about Daddy and Uncut Gems ten years apart, I referenced the classic noir Night and the City in both cases, without realizing I was repeating myself. Or are the Safdies repeating themselves? You decide.
Scarecrow also has Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, another miserabilist film I liked, and which I mention here.
Lenny, the central figure of Daddy Longlegs, is a singular character in movies: irresponsible, self-centered, a loose cannon distinguished by one hard-to-reconcile fact: he’s furiously attached to his children.
The only movie antecedents for this character would be those film noir anti-heroes (Richard Widmark in Night and the City, say) who scramble from one scheme to the next, always missing their chance and perpetually disappointing the people who’ve made the mistake of loving them.
On that last point, Lenny’s two young sons don’t have much choice. He’s their father, and they are in his custody for only two weeks a year—how can they not love this unstructured, chaotic man, so much a child himself, even if he sometimes scares them?
Daddy Longlegs follows Lenny during the two weeks he has custody, a manic period in which he bops through Manhattan (and, in one foolish escapade, a trip to upstate New York with two people he barely knows), trying to juggle a semi-girlfriend and his job as a projectionist at a revival theater.
Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie begin the movie with a dedication to their own father (and others), and you wonder how much of the film is autobiographical. If any of it is, Daddy Longlegs qualifies as a remarkable act of filial sympathy, a non-judgmental attempt to portray a complicated, colorful, and sometimes unforgivable figure.
One episode has Lenny drugging his boys (played by expressive real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo) so they’ll sleep through the night when he has to work. This dangerous and stupid move comes out of Lenny’s cracked idea of love: he wants to “protect” them from freaking out when they wake up and he’s not there, so he risks their health in the process.
This intriguing film, shot in a jagged, quick-on-the-uptake style familiar from umpteen indie pictures, would not be half as successful without the fascinating presence of Ronald Bronstein in the lead role. Bronstein also contributed to the script and he fully captures Lenny’s wheedling, hustling ways (Lenny is always trying to get someone to bail him out of a jam by proclaiming, “This time it’s a real emergency,” which understandably leaves him stranded when he actually has real emergencies).
Bronstein is a filmmaker, too; his Frownland is also a terrific character study, if harder to watch than this more expansive film. When a movie makes you curious about what happens next to an off-putting character, it has succeeded—and in that sense, the Safdies and Bronstein have thoroughly succeeded.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.