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Stream of the Day: Years Before ‘Uncut Gems,’ the Safdie Brothers Gave Us the Ultimate Dysfunctional New Yorker

While the Adam Sandler saga brought the Safdies a bigger audience, "Daddy Longlegs" is the must-see movie for anyone entranced by their gritty New York style.

“Daddy Longlegs”

With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform. Parts of this article were published when “Good Time” premiered at Cannes.

Filmmaking duo Josh and Benny Safdie are quickly becoming some of the most celebrated American directors out there: “Uncut Gems” was the surprise hit of 2019, a dark and gritty Adam Sandler vehicle that transformed his oddball humor into a cinematic odyssey through the streets of New York’s diamond district. Now, with the movie continuing to raise its profile as one of Netflix’s most popular new releases, the Safdie brand has never been stronger: As with Robert Pattinson in “Good Time,” the Safdies have once again proven they can transform stars into naturalistic puddles of exasperation, real human faces for these anxiety-riddled times.

However, Safdie completists know that the sibling filmmakers were exploring that concept over a decade ago. Years before “Uncut Gems” and Howard Ratner jolted moviegoers around the world, their writing partner Ronald Bronstein took on the lead role as the ultimate dysfunctional New Yorker in “Daddy Longlegs.”

Even that film emerged from a substantial body of work preceding it. By most estimations, the image of New York as a scrappy bohemia filled with neurotic, obsessive loners peaked long ago, with Scorsese-era depictions of a jagged urban underworld that no longer exists. If that’s the true, sibling directors Josh and Ben Safdie must have arranged quite the seance to resurrect it. The Safdies gradually accumulated small windows into city life as the co-founders of a New York film collective, where much of their work — including some stellar shorts — has involved the manic personalities of inner-city life, from two-bit thieves to failing parents and junkies, and their style only crystalizes as they move along.

The brothers quietly premiered their discursive feature “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” at SXSW in 2008, then later screened it at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, where they were the only American filmmakers showing in the section. That movie, in which Josh starred as an aimless kleptomaniac, showed their attentiveness to small moments in the lives of hapless, self-destructive introverts. But it wasn’t until two years later with “Daddy Longlegs” that their talent truly came into focus.

The dark comedy stars “Frownland” director Ronnie Bronstein as single father Lenny, who wanders the dirtiest New York City streets and lurks in the shadows of his mangy apartment, grumbling and cackling through his endless misfortunes. As a deadbeat dad who can’t take care of his two young kids for more than an hour before doing something horribly wrong, he’s a slapstick figure whose circumstances are inherently tragic. Hiding behind a mess of untended curls and constantly searching eyes, Lenny is the ultimate aging slacker, a bohemian loner with no place to hide.

Bronstein’s performance puts a face on the generational bridge inherent to the context of the Safdies’ work. The immovable scowl that crosses his mug recalls John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise,” while Lenny’s ongoing frustration turns him into the beast of New York underground angst epitomized by “Mean Streets” and its ilk. The wandering narrative drifts through Lenny’s reckless existence, but it also follows him on a series of mini-adventures in parenting — including a horrific third-act twist. Now confident that they could build a world of busy corners and disheveled people barreling through them, the Safdies found a way to tell gripping stories within them.

One year later, one of their peers, Lena Dunham, unleashed a New York vision of her own with “Tiny Furniture,” which paved the way for “Girls.” But it was “Daddy Longlegs” that brought the New York movie back to the global arena, premiering at Directors Fortnight to a warm reception that confirmed that their precise setting was more than just homage to a bygone era. The movie finds a restless form of poetry in off-kilter moments in crowded alleys and cramped apartments, with plot points involving the Roosevelt Island tram and a cameo by Abel Ferrara. The Safdies didn’t just worship old New York; they molded it into art. And so began the era of the heroin mayhem in “Heaven Knows What,” Robert Pattinson’s dark night of the soul in “Good Time,” and “Uncut Gems,” which combined everything leading up to it into an epic comedy of errors with real consequences.

No matter how their work continues to evolve, however, “Daddy Longlegs” remains a crucial embodiment of the Safdie skill — on the level of craft and character alike. The movie shows a striking ability to delve into the daily hardships of unhappy people by turning them into exciting, unpredictable sagas, where the stakes are constantly uncertain and the only victory is the prospects of surviving another miserable day. And that, as “Uncut Gems” fans know, does not come easy.

“Daddy Longlegs” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel and IFC Films Unlimited.

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