Was Howard Ratner a Bad Father, Or Just a Hopelessly Inept One?
Despite their excess, the free-wheeling fathers in the films of Josh and Benny Safdie are uncomfortably believable
This is the fifth volume of a weeklong series on the theme of fatherhood in the work of six contemporary filmmakers. You can read the rest here.
As a child, summer vacations with my father were freewheeling times, titillating in their chaotic uncertainty. This was less on account of my behavior than his, how he’d unload me at malls and movie theaters to fend for myself as he tended to “business,” choosing to trust that I’d be safe over the helicopter-parent paranoia that some pervert might lure me into a van. There was the way he’d speed like a madman, one of his many lessons in how certain things could be achieved faster, easier and cheaper with a bit of rule-bending. One year, he anticipated the mass exodus from a waterpark upon signs of thunder that proved ultimately fleeting. He gathered us kids, all sheepish in our flip-flops and swimsuits, and led us into the park through the exit gates, then-unmanned and wide open to accommodate the throng of impatient deserters. A half-hour later, the storm ceased and the park’s activities resumed in full swing. And we enjoyed it all for free, though later my father would mutter some excuse about knowing someone who knew someone who’d authorized our literal backdoor entry. In short, his pretense of proper fatherly conduct was always half-assed, laughably translucent. That’s just what it was to be with my dad, and damaging or not, I developed a sense of humor about it.
So it makes sense how my father — a pathological liar, a schemer with a grin of gold that, for all his bullshit, you couldn’t help but match — reminds me of Adam Sandler’s Howie Ratner, the bad-dad protagonist of Josh and Benny Safdie’s dizzyingly manic gambling thriller Uncut Gems. Though it’s not just that he was also obsessed with sports to the point of folly, or that he always seemed to be working out some kind of life-changing deal.
In his slightly oversized leather jacket and vibrant polos blinged out with flashy rings and diamond studs, Howie is hardly the spitting image of a family man. We see him in action at his diamond district jewelry store, fending off thuggish debt collectors and parlaying with Kevin Garnett over a rare black opal potentially worth millions, then dropping into a luxury condo he shares with his obscenely hot younger girlfriend (Julia Fox). It’s only after all this that Howie drops in on his three kids and wife (Idina Menzel), who is rightfully embittered by his flightiness and hopeless self-absorption. Earlier, we see Howie marvel at his newly-acquired opal, the promise of scoring big glimmering before his eyes as his disgruntled longtime employee goes on a tirade and ultimately quits without Howie ever noticing. His family is not exempt from such treatment. Eyes glued to a game on which he’s bet an obscene amount of money, Howie flouts his goodnight duties by watching ESPN on his phone as he lays on the floor of his son’s room involuntarily letting out hoots and groans instead of performing the expected tuck and kiss.
Howie is a shitty father, no doubt about it. Yet the way Sandler captures his shittiness betrays an air of nervous vulnerability, a hint of yes, I know I’m screwing up that vests Howie with a certain goofy warmth. We can’t help but snigger at his inadequacies, his inability to perform the simple paternal tasks before him, and his preposterous coverup attempts that seem so uncontrollably, unintentionally absurd. His entire family in tow after a Passover gathering in the city, Howie stops by his bachelor pad and must improvise when his oldest son, a mini-Howie similarly devoted to basketball and already making pocket change bets with his pals, tags along to use the bathroom. Afraid that the boy will discover his mistress, he sends him into his cokehead neighbor’s apartment, insisting that his own toilet is broken. Tough luck: the neighbor ends up spilling the beans about the “hot chick” living in Howie’s place, anyway. Howie’s children do not play robust roles in the film, because they do not play robust roles in his tunnel-visioned life. Nevertheless, we see in brief, revealing asides how they perceive their father, as when Howie attempts to connect with his teenage daughter and she exchanges a knowing glance with her mother that asks, “Is he for real?”
Themselves the children of divorce who spent their early years shuttled between Manhattan and Queens, the Safdie brothers are perhaps indebted to their cinephile and home-video-obsessed father for turning them on to filmmaking. “When we were going through all this trauma as kids,” Josh Safdie said in an interview with the Austin Chronicle, “we were always told as a comfort, ‘Well, one day this will make a great movie.’ (. . .) From the beginning on we were stealing our father’s camera and constantly shooting little things and working with each other. I tend to romanticize the situation, and Benny can be very critical.”
Somewhere between the poles of romanticizing and criticizing, the Safdies situate their understanding of fatherhood and what it has done for them. For the directors, it’s not that we shouldn’t blame our parents for fucking us up when that’s exactly what they’ve done; not that we shouldn’t feel angry or robbed of a nurturing father who, in failing to care for us in that soft way that children ought be cared for, denied us those years of total comfort. Fatherly deceit and negligence can be devastating to a kid, but that’s not the whole of it. What I find so striking about the Safdies’ depiction of the ne’er-do-well father is how the filmmakers also grapple with the flawed human beyond the expectations of his paternal role. The Safdies’ filmography is filled with addicts and thrill-seekers and everyday lunatics, yet they render these desperate, unhinged characters into people we want to preserve, even in their utter, terrible stupidity. That ineffable, illogical commitment is perhaps how I feel toward my own father, who I can never seem to properly, definitively hate, and whose treacheries I look back on with a bizarre kind of pride, perhaps because I had lived through them.
I wonder if that’s how the Safdies feel toward their father, the inspiration for their outrageously damning yet strangely warm debut Daddy Longlegs. The semi-autobiographical film traces the two weeks in the year that movie projectionist Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) gets custody of his two small sons, Sage and Frey (the sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo). All of the Safdies’ films are endurance tests set in restless, propulsive worlds, yet this early work is a particularly harrowing tightrope act of cringe and anxiety, hinged at one point on the very survival of the two boys.
Lenny, a seemingly lawless being who floats around Queens like a rollicking raccoon, is more a playmate than an actual father to his sons. When he picks them up from school at the beginning of their time together, he curses and practically blows a raspberry at their principal, who tries and fails to confer with Lenny about the boys’ bad behavior (in this case, one of them assaulted a teacher, and the other pulled a tuft of hair out of a fellow student’s head). The boys are mildly insane — tiny, gremlin versions of their own father — but they’re still children, something that Lenny seems unable to comprehend in the most basic sense. As in, you don’t take children on road trips with total strangers. Or, you don’t drug children so that they don’t notice you’re gone. And if they happen to fall into a several-days-long sleep on account of said drugging, you don’t leave them unattended to take your mind off the whole ordeal.
So irretrievably is Lenny on his own wavelength that in the final act, he abducts his boys from school after they return to their mother’s custody. Avoiding a predictably maudlin conclusion, he never experiences an a-ha moment that allows him to see the error of his ways, which would require an upheaval of his entire personality. He will never behave in the fatherly way that the world deems right and true — once home, he immediately sends Sage and Frey off to do grocery shopping on their own before deciding impromptu to pack up and move. In the end, we see the trio hauling their things onto a Roosevelt Island tram. The kidnapping and getaway makes for a troubling finale, one that nevertheless feels lighter and funnier than it should, perhaps because we know it to be an expression of Lenny’s love. And for Safdie men like him, expressions of love are nothing if not hopelessly, tragically misguided. These expressions may not be the right thing, the Safdies propose, but perhaps they are enough.
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