Lenny Sokol’s life is a barely controlled chaos. He has custody of his two sons for two weeks, his work life is insane, he’s juggling girlfriends and, well, Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) is a chaotic kind of a guy. He’s the reduction ad absurdum of the prototypical nebbish hero, version 3.0, the grandson of Woody Allen, the son of Jerry Seinfeld, a charming narcissist writ large.
“Daddy Longlegs,” the new film by Josh and Benny Safdie, distills those two weeks into an ambling, slightly aimless but not uncharming film, until it takes a darker turn.
You could put “Daddy Longlegs,” which opens May 14, on the shelf next to Azazel Jacobs’ “Momma’s Man.” Both films examine the slow unraveling of a male parent in his late 20s as the pressures of adult responsibility meet the brick wall of arrested adolescence. Both center on New York families that are unmistakably Jewish, although that identity is unstated. Both films are somewhere between the periphery and Ground Zero of “mumblecore,” micro-budgeted indie films that owe a lot to the slacker generation and cinematic predecessors like John Cassavettes. What sets these two movies apart from the rest of the mumblecore jungle is their decidedly darker trajectory and the implicit criticism of their protagonists.
When we first see Lenny he is asking for a foot-long hot dog at the Papaya King on 72nd Street. (“Daddy Longlegs” is nothing if not delightfully specific in its New York City geography and, among other things, is a valentine to the city.) They don’t serve foot-longs, but they’re perfectly happy to sell him two hot dogs on a hero, and he’s satisfied with that compromise. This amusing vignette actually offers a telling insight into Lenny’s personality: he’s eminently adaptable, a guy who can improvise and settle. And for the first two-thirds of the film, we see him doing just that.
But as his improvisations become increasingly complicated and his personal charm won’t extricate him from the results, one senses that his mainspring is being wound just a little too tight. His spur-of-the moment inspirations begin to have disastrous effects, culminating in an appalling moment when, unable to find an emergency babysitter, he gives the boys a tiny dose from one of his sleeping pills. Tragedy does not ensue — this is not the world of melodrama, it’s much too understated for that — but the comedy is drained out of the film, by design, as in “Momma’s Man.”
The Safdies present this story (apparently autobiographical) with subtle indirection, in a shambling, episodic structure that cunningly conceals its highly intelligent calculations. Lenny’s emotional breakdown is conveyed more subtly, thanks in no small part to the extraordinarily detailed and nuanced gradations of tone in Ronald Bronstein’s performance. He’s the kind of actor who can deliver a line like “I have the mental space to be more considerate now,” while conveying both the irony of the statement and the character’s unconsciousness of that irony.
In the end, there is something deeply disturbing about Lenny and “Daddy Longlegs.” That is, undoubtedly, deliberate and a mark, one hopes, of how far this latest generation of Jewish American filmmakers has moved from its models. There is a fleeting reference to Henny Youngman, spoken sarcastically by Lenny, that suggests that this wave of artists knows its artistic and ethnic forebears, from the Borscht Belt to the Upper West Side (which, significantly and pointedly, is for the most part not where the film is set), and that the forebears are no longer accepted as viable role models. n
“Daddy Longlegs” opens on May 14 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.
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