The basic elements of effective drama, if stripped down to the core essentials, are shockingly simple. It isn't particularly difficult to create, say, strong romantic or erotic pull in a love scene, or to generate adequate tension in a chase sequence, and when a film accomplishes one or more of those goals, it might hook us and pull us in for a brief time. That's perhaps the most that can be said of David Siegel and Scott McGehee's experimental, nonlinear drama Uncertainty; it has a handful of scenes with real dramatic force, but if one steps back to consider the whole equation, the movie disappoints. It leaves us with precious little to take away -- sacrificing elements like character depth, thematic resonance, profundity, and visual bravura for the sake of a been-there-before narrative conceit that seems to exist merely for the sake of its own cleverness.
Something of a low-rent variation on Peter Howitt's 1998 Sliding Doors, Uncertainty opens on Independence Day, with a young couple, Bobby Thompson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and girlfriend Kate Montero (Lynn Collins), standing in New York City and pondering which direction to choose for that afternoon's adventure. They opt to settle that decision with a coin toss, at which point the film forks off into two potential narratives -- one, "Green," dramatizes what happens when the couple high-tails it to lower Manhattan; the other, "Yellow," finds the couple venturing to Brooklyn for a July 4th celebration with Kate's sprawling Hispanic family.
To the directors' credit, the film never grows confusing, despite the intertwined stories with the same two leads playing out two separate narratives at the same time. McGehee and Siegel create a distinct set of stylistic elements for each tale; each has its own wardrobe, cinematographic style, tone, and pace, so that we know exactly where we are, and what is happening, at any given point in the movie. Unfortunately, the movie lacks narrative balance -- not in terms of screen time but in terms of raw audience interest. The tension and suspense of the "Yellow" story -- which finds Bobby and Kate relentlessly pursued through lower Manhattan by suited thugs, and attempting to extort a ransom from the owner of a cell phone found in a taxicab -- grow so strong and overwhelming that they detract from the "Green" story. The "Yellow" tale is no more than a cheap, tacky, two-bit melodrama (and it more than strains plausibility), so that we might even feel embarrassed to care, but on some rudimentary level, the cliffhangers in that story really do work, though the ending feels like a complete cop-out. The "Green" story is not only less eventful, but quasi-anemic; its dramatic highlights consist of the couple finding a stray dog, and Kate waffling over whether or not to open up to her domineering mother.
In neither case do the stories succeed at creating genuinely interesting, multi-layered characters that earn our empathy and fascination -- and in neither case do the stories contribute to some larger thematic basis that the movie desperately needs to justify its parallel narrative conceit and avoid the trap of film-school-level pretentiousness. In Sliding Doors, writer-director Howitt fell back on the obvious but endlessly intriguing idea of chance versus fate -- how the entire course of one's life can be altered permanently by a split-second decision -- so that the divergent paths of the central character (Gwyneth Paltrow) wound up at two wildly different destinations. But here, Siegel and McGehee essentially bring the central couple to an identical emotional and spiritual place at the end of each story, so that we're still questioning what each journey really demonstrates to the audience, and why it was necessary to even observe multiple outcomes. In the end, the film's chase sequences through Manhattan are incredibly thrilling, and the scenes of physical and emotional intimacy between the central lovers genuinely touching, but the movie seems to lack an overarching purpose.