Can you have a good time in a movie with no likeable characters? Brothers Ben and Josh Safdie are betting you can with their crime thriller, “Good Time,” about two fictional brothers, one played by Ben, who get entangled in a bank robbery gone wrong. With one arrested, it’s up to the ringleader, Connie (Robert Pattinson) to get him out — one way or another. Connie tries a lot of things, not all of them successful or even fully thought out. Smart criminals, these are not. But hey, they are entertaining.
At least the imprisoned brother has an excuse for getting involved. Ben (Ben Safdie) is mentally challenged. We learn that when Connie barges into a therapy session and drags him out, only to bring him along for the robbery, the kind where the robber passes a note to the teller, and it’s all the teller can do not to roll her eyes and sigh deeply. Sure enough, minutes later, when Connie is whooping it up in the back of the getaway vehicle, a dye pack explodes and everything goes haywire.
What follows is an adrenaline-fueled ride, crafted with the gritty realism that characterized the Safdie brothers’ previous effort, “Heaven Knows What,” which followed young, homeless drug abusers in New York. Although “Heaven Knows What” emphasized its grotesque setting, we get the feeling Connie and Ben are from a similar background that’s simply led to a different dead end. “Good Time” might be a wild ride, but it’s also frequently a depressing one, similar to the early films noir of directors such as Nicholas Ray, profiling a menagerie of the damned.
The big question that hangs over the film is why Connie thinks it’s a better idea for his brother to help him rob a bank than to sit through a therapy session. But it’s not a question “Good Time” is eager to answer. The movie strongly hints that Connie’s motivation is keeping his brother “normal.” In other words, he doesn’t want himself, or Ben, or anyone else to think otherwise.
But there is no indication beyond that impulse to explain why the alternative is so drastic. What’s the money for? Is it to start a new life somewhere? Is it to set Ben up so he doesn’t have to live in a state-funded facility? It’s not clear. Or maybe there is no answer. Maybe Connie doesn’t even know, for sure. But we never get the chance to find out. From the moment that dye pack explodes, the film is on the run, without a break in the action long enough to learn much more than people will do pretty much anything to survive, even very stupid things.
The action is crafted quite well. This is no big-budget Hollywood spectacle, but it does have some pretty incredible, if smaller-scale, set pieces, such as a daring rescue from a hospital and a lengthy break-in at a disturbing amusement park. And there are much weirder stops along the way.
You never know which direction this movie will take — and it’s always in motion. Surprises, both in content and tone, wait to pounce behind every corner. Most of Connie’s decisions are fantastically stupid, but they’re also credible. The camera is usually a hair’s breadth from his wild eyes and sweaty brow. You may slap your own forehead occasionally in astonishment, but you’ll never be bored.
There’s even a midfilm reveal that, if not guessed ahead of time — and it’s not likely — counts as one of the wittiest twists in the history of movies like this — so well done, it takes a while to even register that it’s happened. That reveal turns the entire story on its head, and then sends it even deeper down the rabbit hole of stupid criminal behavior.
“Good Time” delivers some surprising and jolting comic moments along the way. It is a rare and surprisingly pleasurable experience to find humor in such squalor of the mind. This isn’t a caper comedy in the style of Guy Ritchie, however. The laughs in “Good Time” are infrequent and tinged with an unpleasant odor. Connie and those he meets along his brief, breakneck journey seem doomed to ensnare themselves. And at around an hour and 40 minutes, the movie feels like that’s just enough time to spend with them.
These are not very likeable criminals, and most certainly not intelligent ones. “Good Time” is not a smart time, but it’s a good time, if you can stomach it. (R) 110 min. S