by Tony Dayoub
Something of a dilemma exists between Kate Montero (Lynn Collins) and Bobby Thompson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Standing on the Brooklyn Bridge on the morning of July 4th, they resolve to decide what to do about their predicament by flipping a coin. From that moment on, Uncertainty splits into a film with dual narratives. As Kate—wearing a yellow sundress—runs to one end of the bridge, Bobby—in a green shirt—runs to the other end. Each end up in a parallel reality: Kate in a sulfur-tinged thriller concerning a lost cell phone that she and Bobby find in a cab in Manhattan; Bobby in an emerald-hued drama in which he and Kate attend a party at her family's Brooklyn home.
It's an unusual premise from the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Bee Season). Given their way around a suspenseful thriller like The Deep End (2001), in which Tilda Swinton played a mother covering up an accidental killing committed by her son, one would expect the "Kate" half of the narrative to be the one that engages most effectively. But the chase of the young couple through Chinatown by the cell phone's murderous owner is stupefyingly unimaginative. One keeps hoping that the importance of the cell phone will be revealed in due time, but the revelation never arrives. Far more rewarding is the "Bobby" half, which is an intimate look at a couple's nascent relationship and the way it can be tested from both within and without. As Bobby tries to navigate through the unknown waters of Kate's family's dynamics, he must also deal with her prickly sensitivity over their shared crisis. Her edginess contributes to the strained atmosphere instigated by a disagreement between Kate's mother (Assumpta Serna) and sister (Olivia Thirlby).
Perhaps the reason the scales of one's interest tips so pronouncedly to the family drama subplot is because of the improvisational feel of the performances in the film. The rather banal dialogue is obviously structured in such a way to allow the actors to riff off of it. Collins and Gordon-Levitt do their best to elevate the material. They are most effective when they have a large group of actors to play with; like Serna who manages to present a sly rendition of the frustrated but loving mom—completely understanding but utterly clueless—in a stifled-anxiety sort of way that typifies Latin moms (I know, I have one). In the family setting, improv allows the plain dialogue to blossom into something more resonant as the film unfolds. Naturally, the thriller action suppresses any of that, with action constantly interrupting any kind of conversation. That's okay if the dialogue or the action is written at a high level. But if both are equally dull, it presents a problem. The result is an uneven film that competes with itself, one flawed half continuously undermining its better.
Uncertainty is an interesting idea executed poorly by McGehee and Siegel. The directors are on to something when they capture each of the parallel narratives in colors that denote each lead's attire. But they fail at tying each story into the central dilemma that sparks the film's experimental perspective. What might have been a compelling look at how disparate storylines bounce off and connect to each other becomes nothing but a formal exercise that never pays off.
Uncertainty is available on demand from IFC Films on November 11th, and opens in select theaters on November 13th.