It’s Better Not to Know

11/11/2009 3:00 PM |

Directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel

At the beginning of Uncertainty, a double-feature of contrasting genres edited into one peculiarly pointless movie, the central characters confront a choice that every Millennial New York couple (of means) must eventually face: Brooklyn? Or Manhattan? But filmmaking couple Scott McGehee and David Siegel don’t feel compelled to make such a decision: instead, situating the lovers at a crossroads—the Brooklyn Bridge—they imagine the course of either scenario. The directing duo made their debut over 15 years ago with Suture, a master’s thesis-ish film that put textbook theory up on the screen: it addressed such pressing issues as, how do we identify with characters and follow stories?, by casting what are supposed to be nearly identical brothers with actors who not only looked nothing alike, features-wise, but who were of different races-a fact all the characters seemed to ignore. Similarly, Uncertainty operates off of a meta-conceit; its dual, parallel-edited, “what if?” narratives reflect the arbitrary choices of screenwriters: where do my characters live? Are they in a conspiratorial thriller? Or a “kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments” domestic drama?

In one section of the film, “Yellow” (or, The Manhattan One), Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins find a lost Treo in a taxi and almost instantaneously become embroiled in a Sino-Russo gang war. (It turns our heroes into amateur extortionists, and the scenes in which they plot their schemes bear conspicuous similarity, one imagines, to plotting sessions in a writers’ room.) In “Green” (or, The Brooklyn One), the same actors grapple with an unexpected pregnancy during a family dinner in Queens and a domestic day of dog walking and crossword puzzles in Brooklyn. Don’t worry if you forget which section is which: Levitt and Collins wear color-coded costumes. Yellow (slow down!), with its electronic-era details of tracked credit cards and dealmaking via email, plays out like a levelheaded Eagle Eye; Green (go, go!), in its Sundance-y dramatics, like an un-explosive Rachel Getting Married for the Latino set, sans wedding. In one, everything happens; in the other, nothing. McGehee and Siegel have found a way to give the audience an indie and a blockbuster all in the same package, like a veggie burger with a hot dog on top.

The two stories parallel each other nicely: both are set off by lost-items found-a cell phone, a dog-and feature the couple in peril, either by the fantastical, contrived forces of Hollywood storytellers or the real world (though still contrived) problems that affect real kids. The stories change, but the themes stay the same-the film functions, if nothing else, as an f-school 101 primer on how to analyze mainstream movies. Unfortunately, the two halves don’t inform each other: the film’s Dr. Jekyll thriller side is compelling in its modest, B-movie mystery, exciting in its jangly hand-held chases (shot by Chris Doyle protégé Rain Li), while the quiet drama of its Mr. Hyde-half moves along capably, if unremarkably. But what does one have to do with the other? Nothing, which might be the point, making this a movie not about people but, coldly, about ideas. Really, the best thing that Uncertainty has to offer is its portrait of Bloomberg’s city: it’s on a par with Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and much richer in texture than the recent and largely clueless New York, I Love You, whether the characters are racing across Chinatown rooftops and through the subway system or complaining about cramped seating at Cinema Village. Otherwise, all the movie has to offer is a moral weird in its self-evidence: the decisions we make affect the courses of our lives—and that goes for real people as well as fictional characters.

Opens November 13