Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Polito, (eyes roll…) Scarlett Johannson, Richard Jenkins and James Gandofini.
Ed’s an aimless barber who’s dissatisfied with his station in life in a his tiny NoCal town. The only excitement he’s felt in a long time is discovering his wife’s possible infidelity. This presents Ed with a unique opportunity; blackmail that he thinks will turn his life around. Read: a big, fat wad of hush money.
He thinks. Ed’s not so good at thinking outside the proverbial box. Especially when greedy thoughts taint his outlook…and lead to murder.
Ed shoulda stuck to cutting hair.
…Pant, pant. Okay. What’d I miss?
Sorry for the long break. Bet some of you other there figured I’d finally threw up my hands, in went the towel and gave up on scouring the Web for mediocre movies to strangle. Tempting, but I remembered I’m performing a public service. Wouldn’t be doing my civil duty with all those Affleck pics still slinking around out there. RIORI exists out of concern for all of you discerning movie monkeys. Out of love.
Right. Kisses. Now it’s time for Name That Movie Subgenre! And here’s your host…
You’ve heard of film noir, right? Right? Aw, c’mon. You’re reading a movie blog. We’ve covered genres like sci-fi, action, drama, comedy, comedy-drama, dramatic comedy, comedies that weren’t funny, dramas that weren’t funny, etc. Don’t think I touched on any significant subgenres like film noir. For real, comedy-drama is a subgenre. So is horror porn come to think of it. In any event, all popular, well-worn genres have their little cliques. From crime drama we get film noir. Here’s an accelerated tutorial for the uniformed. The folks at Wikipedia define film noir as:
“…A cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.”
Stuff was like all the superhero flicks today: all the rave, and just as virulent. I think the Golden Age of film noir was back in the mid-1940s to the mid-50s. Wartime into peace. In a world of conflict, I’ll bet it appealed to the Homefront to tune into a dark underworld of corruption as a passive response to the open crimes beating Europe over the head with a rubber hose studded with roofing nails. Rough justice. Criminals getting their due, albeit in an ambiguous fashion. Femme fatales. Private dicks with a job to do unclouded by lofty concepts of justice and duty. The mean streets. The world of then was now a bit more blurry when it came to discerning what good and evil truly was. Shades of grey all around. Hence, noir.
Like that? Give you a chill? Anyway…
Appealing to the well-heeled to distract them from recent, all too real conflicts past overseas. Trade it all in for short, direct morality tales. With sex and shooting, too. Hail Columbia and pass the popcorn.
The genre kinda petered out, I think, with the dawn of Technicolor. That and the dawn of TV. Unsure on both fronts. The genre didn’t go away though, not fully. There’s always a need for on screen murkiness against what “good” and “bad” mean to each other. What I’m wagering here is that perhaps years of blurring the lines between good and evil on screen reached a saturation point post VJ-Day. After almost a decade of war, I’ll also bet Americans wanted to breathe a sigh of relief and lighten up some. Hence, Singin’ In The Rain.
Film noir never really went away, though. I mean, c’mon, watching Gene Kelly dance is a thing to behold. But so is looking down the barrel of some tough’s gun. A lot of what I’m about to say is conjecture since I wasn’t there when it went down, so I’m a-gonna offer a perspective akin to what went down. It’s all about reinvention, mixing the colors to appeal to contemporary audiences in need of a little deviance and a few anti-heroes to anti-root for.
I’ve always been a slow learner. I never had my head in the clouds; my lofty expectations were almost always grounded. Meaning I was well-versed in the present but always curious, studious in the past. Blame my Dad’s Dylan LPs. My point was—and maybe still is—that it takes me time to fully absorb the wealth of a certain something upon exposure. Sometimes it takes time for the right time to bloom fruitful.
Long story short, I discovered Never Mind The Bollocks in college. Again, slow learner.
The same adheres to the first sorta film noir flick I caught. Was made at the dawn of the 1960s. Sure, it wasn’t as hardcase as, say, Double Indemnity (more on that later. Don’t shiver), but still bore the hallmarks of the sub-genre. Sex, infidelity, steely villian and unwitting hero. Fit the mold. Hell, it even won best pic that year. Of course it’s a fave film of mine. Always in my top ten. And only hangs on the noir schtick in a febrile sense. No matter. Follow my pretzel logic.
Not all noir flicks are about the criminal element in otherwise polite society. Sometimes the most domestic, even plebeian circumstances—well-written—can be pretty sharp, cutting even exposing the evil that men can do without firing a gun. Sometimes all it takes are morally ambivalent characters acting on questionable impulses. Or thought out schemes.
The story goes as such. Our protag is a nebbish. Nice guy, but in need of a spine. Gets bullied a lot because, well, he figures that’s his lot in life. He’s a bachelor, and probably will be the rest of his days. No real friends to speak of, just said bullies who on good word can wrangle favors out of him. Sometimes for fast cash, sometimes just to be let alone. Our wimpy hero only has his job, some vague career aspirations, flirting with that cute elevator operator and his apartment.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, chances are you didn’t molest Fandango for Guardians Of The Galaxy, vol 2 tickets. If it does, color me impressed.
Turns out our wimpy leading man has a real thing for the elevator girl, and too shy and socially ill-equipped to have any gumption to ask her out. Flirting will have to do, especially since she’s the unofficial squeeze of our man’s smarmy, married boss. It’s thanks to that boss that our man’s sanctum sanctorum, his apartment, has become a garden of earthly delights. Namely, hey bud, you got no one and we guy folk need digs to swing, follow? You’re good people. Just let us use your apartment to shack up with some legs and you’ll be…well-compensated. Your boss said you’re golden. Dig?
CC Baxter nods his head. Too often. His “hospitality” catches on with his higher-ups, recommended by the big man himself Mr Sheldrake. Favors beget favors, but as Baxter’s star begins to climb based on infidelity, his morals get squished and his fantasy girl Fran gets further out of reach. With all that jazz coming from his apartment, she assumes CC is really just a player in lamb’s clothing.
Sounds pretty noir to me. You smell what I’m stinking, Quill?
The movie was The Apartment. A fave. Won best pic back in 1960, a time where noir was though dead. It had the same moral ambiguity, grim characters you couldn’t really tell which side they set on, black humor and sex on the sly. There were no shootings, no femme fatales (young Shirley McClaine was too much of a cutie pie), no dirty criminal activities (okay, maybe blackmail and some hints of embezzlement) and no fog clouded back alleys replete with a body in a dusky Dumpster. We had Jack Lemmon at his most cringey, the polar opposite of Some Like It Hot as our “hero.” We had Fred McMurray as the unlikely heel, especially so pressed against his future role in My Three Sons. We had Shirley McClaine well before her past lives, all pert and perky. We had all three take a downward spiral spin into moral corruption and sexual dalliances. Again, sounds pretty noir to me.
And the style never really went away. It’s still around. The neighborhoods might have changed, but the coal black underbelly of human frailty still slithers. From David Lynch taking us on a ride down Mulholland Drive to Miller and Rodriguez’ highly stylized Sin City to the starkness of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (already covered here, BTW), noir is still with us.
Heck, even the Coen brothers made their big screen debut with their cheerless, brilliant Blood Simple. Another tale of human frailty, illicit gains and a corrupt private dick after said illicit gains. All of the tawdry tale set against the background of quaint suburbia.
Kinda like this tale…
Ed Crane (Thornton) has a decent life. Nothing exciting, but maybe wanting for something more. He’s unsure.
Ed’s the local barber, a reliable fixture on Main Street. He’s good at his job, and even though it doesn’t pay much, he’s got not much to worry about there. His pretty wife Doris (McDormand) is well employed at the local, successful department store Nirdlinger’s as a bookkeeper. She knows all the ins and outs and comings and goings of all stock and what it costs. She also drinks too much and might be banging her esteemed boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (Gandolfini). Despite being rock solid and quiet, this irks Ed somewhat.
It’s funny how opportunity can rear its ugly head. One eve, close to closing time at Ed’s barber shop, some yappy traveling salesman hops in a demands a trim to better accommodate his toupee. As Ed snips, this guy Tolliver (Polito) goes on and on about his latest business venture. He calls it “dry cleaning,” getting those pesky stains out via special chemicals rather than soap and water. Way of the future, and all Tolliver needs is some mark to invest in his franchise. Clean, with chemicals.
Ed smokes a while. Sure, his life’s okay. But also he doesn’t feel that it’s really his life. Doris, after all, kinda holds all the cards, as well maybe Big Dave’s big dave. It’ll be nice to reach for a brass ring. Maybe just better to reach for…something. He meets Tolliver to lay down his part in the nascent business plan.
Ed’s not used to making a stand. He’s not used to making anything. All he knows is that it’s time for a change. A swerve in the road.
And fighting off a Lolita complex to classical piano a decade before Lolita is published…
Now I know using The Apartment as an example of late period noir was a bit of a stretch. Most installments here are. Still, there are decent parallels between one of Wilder’s greats and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Both films involve infidelity, blackmail and the sometime ugliness involved in “getting ahead.” I’m willing to wager the Coens’ took a nod to The Apartment as partial inspiration to Man. Then again, it might be my prejudice and an need to find some link. Why? I dunno. But I’m pretty certain that Man, despite its trappings, tries to examine the classic “good man who does bad things” as a means to an end. Kinda like The Apartment, except someone gets killed here, not just a ruined life. Well there’s that, too. I think I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Coen brothers got their start in neo-noir. Their debut, Blood Simple, had all the hallmarks of a classic noir film. Blackmail. Sex on the sly. A corrupt detective. People getting shot. Ambiguous, downbeat conclusion. All the goodies. So the bro’s knew their mark. Man is steeped even deeper in noir tropes, but it still has the same Coen ethos as Blood. In fact, Man has the Coen thumbprints all over it. Theirs is noir that cannot escape their trademark left-of-center humor. Man’s not funny much, but it’s still screwy in the Coen tradition. Namely, it’s weird.
There is less of an homage here than a winking nod. The matter with modern noir is the modern part. A great deal of what made the classics of the genre still resonate today (if only to us film geeks) is its lo-fi ethos. Imagery that’s too sharp and clean robs the style of its innate, intentional grittiness. Man is a noir throwback with a budget. Everything’s so clean and direct. Sure, we have tension, but minus the blurriness of the old school. Thornton’s Ed is too well-defined to be regarded as desperate, like our anti-heroes of the days gone by.
Still, it’s essential in a film like Man to have an average Joe thrown into—or in Ed’s case, invited into—unusual, opportunistic circumstances. Problem is with Ed he’s so darn nondescript there’s precious little to relate to. All we can glean from Ed’s life of quiet desperation in that he’s depression incarnate. We’re led to think Ed’s life sucks. Instead it looks like he’s just bored; even the screwy get-rich-quick scheme seems more like a lark than a way out of Ed’s humdrum life. You know, the one with the pretty (albeit lushy and wandering) wife and financial security. Ed’s motives for blackmail are vague at best, and derivative at worst. It’s like the Coen’s were forcing the noir aspect, not letting it be organic. This was the Coen brothers’ film I ever saw that was completely joyless, even with their trademark sly humor in check. Even Blood Simple had a sort of light touch. Not here. Man was grim. Not a lot of fun.
Still, this was the kind of film I just wanted to watch, sans commentary. There felt to be a lot to be absorbed here. Everything felt so deliberate. Wasn’t sure it was tribute or the usual Coen angular storytelling. Man was interesting to look at, but not to watch. Some shots work (like the confessional/ensuing struggle between Ed and Big Dave), some don’t (Doris’ pleas behind bars). Some seem genuine noir, some seem…too Coen. I know, I know. Established directors must have their own styles. It gets perilous, however, when said director tackles a particular genre that has well-defined parameters and spins it to their muse. What I’m driving at is that Joel’s trying to channel classic noir here, but he’s trying as well as practicing that screwy Coen storytelling logic. There’s some friggin’ in the riggin’ here, and it made my attention wander.
What did keep my attention was the acting, despite its stereotyping. We’ve already beaten up the concept that certain character ciphers are expected in a noir flick. The everyman put in a perilous sitch. The femme fatale. Greed and corruption. All lot of that in The Apartment. Here however, our leads are pretty hard-boiled, like a James Cain pulp (admittedly what the Coen’s claimed they were aiming for). Like I said, joyless. But our stereotypical characters paid tribute in the best way possible: they were familiar and welcome.
Thornton played low-key, almost stoic very well. If Ed is supposed to be the complete, unremarkable everyman plunked into a dark shadow, Billy Bob’s chain smoking protag fit the bill quite well. He’s so muted, so flat affect, the idea of being relatable goes out the window. We’re supposed to be sympathetic with Ed. It doesn’t work, since Ed has no personality. However I dug Ed’s narration. Resigned, like he was already in the Chair as he recounted how what happened happened. Low-key and guttural. All the best aspects of Thronton’s on screen persona, and far more engaging than him stalking about as Ed. Still, being in fine voice does not an engaging character make. We ride along with him as not just as avatar, but because he’s so blah we’re waiting to see if anything, anything stirs him outside of dry cleaning, unfaithfulness and having Tolliver make a pass at him. The rest of the time is an intriguing field trip with a man who has nothing to lose because he had nothing real to begin with. Guess that blah can be interesting after all, but it don’t curry any empathy with our lead.
The flipside of Thornton’s performance is the dynamic Tony Shaloub (who I wished had more scenes). Man proved to be a great platform to illustrate how versatile our often one-note Shaloub could be. One might’ve not even recognized him here as the fast-talking shyster lawyer Freddy. I didn’t at first. His spark came in at the right time in the film to mix the colors. I’d go as far to say that his brief screen time might’ve warranted an Oscar nod. Too bad those doddering, old white guys were drooling in their oatmeal. Yes, I liked Antonio that much, even without the clumsy guitar picking.
But overall, the film felt like Joel and Ethan were trying too hard. Man might be construed as fanboy wish fulfillment. They did a better job with Blood Simple; allusion rather than the straight line, which fell short of the mark here. I wanted to get into Man, but the film did its darndest to alienate me. Not unlike Ed being Ed. A shame.
Oh yeah. Remember a million miles ago when I mentioned I’d get into Double Indemnity? I lied. Go stream the thing for some noir goodness. Right now I gotta take these stained trousers to get dry cleaned.
Ain’t I clever? Kinda like straining spaghetti with a tennis racket.
Oh, go stream The Apartment already.
Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There’s a reason why certain Coen films land here at RIORI. They’re lacking something. Or have too much misplaced Coen in them. Chemicals.
“Like I said, I’m not an expert.”
Never light a cigar with a Zippo.
“That was really something.”
Talk about being high on the hog. Sorry.
“Just keeps growing…”
I did like the old school “scrolling background” during the car rides. A nice touch.
“I do the talking.” And how.
“Thank you, Burns. Now get lost.” Best line in the movie. Quite noir.
“Sooner or later we all need a haircut.”
Blogger’s Note (A Bonus)…
Hey. I’ve been at this blog for a few years now, tackling what mediocre movies the 21st Century has thrown at me. I’ve been considering branching out (mostly at the behest of passive-aggresive suggestions from the blogosphere) to consider questionable flicks shot prior to the year 2000. I was thinking about tossing off a random review of a random film with a dubious repute to stir the soup. Granted there are tons of such films lurking around the 20th Century, so I figured to set some parameter: mediocre movies within my lifetime. From 1976 (the Bicentennial. How American) to now. I’ll Quantum Leap backwards occasionally like some Dr Sam Beckett with an AllMovie profile and dig up some possible dirt. What say you all? Post some comments. I’m approaching serious here.
Nicole Kidman suspects there’s something off with The Stepford Wives, and it’s scaring her. Matthew Broderick suspects something similar, and he loves it.
Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara, with Scarlett Johannson, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey, Jr., Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman.
When chef Carl Casper simultaneously cracks up and hits career arrest, he looks around at the debris of his life and figures to pick up the pieces and start from scratch. To his surprise—and reluctance—he finds he’s not going it go it alone. When his estranged son comes to the fore, both literally and figuratively, he jogs Carl’s memory why he got into the biz in the first place: to make people happy.
As I have pointed out here at RIORI before, I make my living as a professional cook. If anyone has read such chef’s memoirs as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen, then you know the life of a chef is rife with tales of melodrama, hardship, idiocy, elation, inebriation, dark humor, exhaustion and a multitude of adjectives that’ll make the regular schmo ask, “Why the f*ck would anyone do this for a living?”
I’m not quite sure myself.
This week’s installment tackles a story that is a distillation—a “greatest hits” if you will—about all the chaos and creation that it is to work as a chef in a high-end, high-pressure restaurant, and the fallout when things go all pear-shaped. And then and all the bullsh*t and ballyhoo that follows. Chef got it mostly right, albeit in a cursory sense, and if Bourdain and White experienced enough nuttiness to make books about the profession, you can be sure as eggs is eggs that all cooks carry around their own tales of grue.
I sure do. Here’s mine.
It’s a long one, far longer than the trip I took you on with the Control piece (vol, 2 , installment 26). Real long. I’m takin’ you into the belly of the beast. In any case, I’ve found that my readers have become increasingly patient (bless you), and allowed me some indulgence. Besides, all blogs wish to take their readers into the center of the mind. In sum, I’m really gonna blog out here, fer reel this time. Well, here we go, and again thank you. Once more, I insist you double-check your restraints. It is a very long ride. Probably longer than the cinematic flaying proper.
You sure you wanna keep reading? I’m warning you.
Okay. Don’t say I didn’t caution you. And, yes, I plan to eventually dissect this week’s movie also. Promise.
Light years ago when I was in culinary school, I spent six hours, five days a week in class and up to 8 hours, five nights a week slogging it out in a small seafood place on the line. The restaurant was a kind of bistro called a brasserie, which is basically a beer and wine bar that happened to also serve dinner. The clientele were way off kilter to give much a sh*t about the menu when they veered off course and bumped onto a four-top. Most of the regulars were the chef’s (drinking) buddies, so the place exuded a kind of retarded atmosphere akin to Cheers, minus classy dudes like Norm and Cliff.
The kitchen itself was the size of a matchbook. The walk-in was the dimensions of a phone booth. We didn’t even have proper dry storage; all our sundries were kept in the stairwell. It was stuffy, noisy, and lit with fluorescents so harsh it would peel your skin off. It paid peanuts and deprived me of much-needed rest and oxygen to attack class the next day. It was nice gig.
One day in class, my buddy Ralph addressed us fellow students that the restaurant where he was staging was going to hold their annual big Xmas banquet, and the chef would be grateful for any of us probies to come in and help prep for the big weekend. My schedule was relatively clear. I was part-time at Cheerless, known to be a newb student and therefore chattel and expendable. To put this into perspective about labor relations at my bistro, our dishwashers were on work-release, and yet still known to be unreliable no-shows. On more than one occasion an “Officer” would stroll in and do the Det. Munch thing with the boss. Besides, my boss was relatively sympathetic to any of my culinary school demands, so I managed to get to volunteer along with a pair of other guys. Little did I know then, but that was the start of my real culinary career. Kale not withstanding.
The place was quaintly called the Farmhouse. It was a smallish, white tablecloth restaurant that had once indeed been a farmhouse (the original barn on the property had been renovated to hold wedding receptions and the like). The place had a stellar reputation; one of the finest restaurants in the area, with a wine and beer list that put to shame my place’s meager offerings. The bar wasn’t the only aspect of the place that garnered attention. The Farmhouse based its fare—with a certain amount of modest pride—exclusively on a seasonal, sustainable menu and using local purveyors for its proteins and produce. You know, the whole “buy fresh, buy local” campaign that’s been so hot over the past few years? The Farmhouse had been following this practice since its inception. Back then, which wasn’t so much “then,” such practices were cutting edge. It was enough to get the chef of the Farmhouse the front page of the local lifestyle magazine as “Chef of the Year” back in 2007. It was big deal in our parts, since before there was no room in the local rags to even honor any chef, let alone the chef. Recall I was raised in a community that was last on the list to get Web access. 56k, no less.
Coincidentally, I had already been introduced to this bastion of contemporary cooking via my school’s semesterly “guest chef” week. Five days out of the program were given wholly up to the chosen chef and his crew to run the school’s kitchen with us students doing menial tasks. At the end of the final day, the host chef and we slaves were tasked to bang out a million covers for guests at the school’s public restaurant, all waiting on baited breath with us rubes working the line. It went well. It always went well with our instructors keeping point. But for me, I wasn’t around. I had to skedaddle off to my corner of the restaurant world (as did a few of my fellow working-class dolts) and miss the fireworks. We had our own fires to tend, as well as make sure our rent was paid on time.
But about a month before this trying week, the guest chef held hold a seminar for the would-be graduating class. It was mandatory attendance. Regardless of your sched out of class and onto work, attendance was mandatory. It also was a passive way that I was introduced to my future mentor.
Before I knew the guy as the guy—let’s call him Mike—he was obviously a chef. Not just wearing the whites, but he had this nervous demeanor about him—especially when he spoke; I guess he wasn’t much for public speaking—that screamed two things. One, he knew his sh*t and was eager to share what he knew in hopes to turn diners on to what he was all about. Two, he’d rather not be anywhere else than away from the kitchen. I later caught a glimpse of this in the school’s kitchen right before his crew took over and I took off to my belated shift at the bistro. But in front of us in the auditorium, despite his obvious scholarly passion for his craft, Mike was stiff. He kept composure well enough, and explained the philosophies of his restaurant in a thoughtful, engaging manner. But he had this faraway look in his eyes. It came later with little surprise that after Mike explained to us the sensible practices of buying local, using fresh and seasonal ingredients and being kind with the Earth, he passed his demo onto his guest, the head farmer at the nearby Liberty Gardens (more about that place later), who soberly explained what his farm was all about and the values of sustainable crops. I dug it immediately. I’ve always been anal, always wanting to be efficient and resourceful at all times. All his talk about local, seasonal, regional produce spoke volumes to me. It’s like what Teddy Roosevelt espoused: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Self-sufficiency. I was down with that. F*ck Monsanto.
In the school’s kitchen, however, the real Mike stepped in. He went over the menu, delegated authority, divvied up the class among him, his sous and his pantry chef to the execute proper tasks to handle for that night’s full house. He got to work with the aplomb of Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on Red Bull. Like I said, the guest chef dinner was always a big deal, and folks would queue up by the dozens for the sumptuous five-course meal. At a reasonable price, no less, so nothing could afford to be left to chance. My cohorts were rounded up like so much cattle, plonked into whatever position they deemed valuable based on the teacher’s evaluation. There was a “ready, break!” moment and everybody scuttled away with a purpose. And that was evening one. God knows what the rest of the nights were like for my teenage, three-hots-and-a-cot counterparts. Mike was all over them like Rosie O’Donnell on a éclair. It was something to behold.
Me? I had to bounce, along with the three or four other guys in pursuit of the Yankee dollar. I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t hang back, witness the ensuing carnage. But hey, hookers don’t come cheap.
Kidding. Hookers are cheap.
Anyway, back to the seminar: afterwards we swooped about the demo table, taking photos of the sample dishes Mike cooked up and marveling at the delights the Liberty Gardens guy brought in. Ralph chatted up Mike and introduced me. Again, Mike seemed pleasant enough—albeit a bit haughty and awkward—and I talked about sustainability with him, thought his menu was great and characteristically said so. He knew it was, of course. Anyway, that’s when Ralph and eventually I caught wind of the Farmhouse’s upcoming Xmas bash.
What happened next that ultimately directed my restaurant career took place over three weeks, but it’s better summed up in three days. The first and the third things were, as narrative structure goes, the problem and the resolution (as well as another prologue). That’s how it went in my mind. It might get confusing, but pay attention. It’ll eventually make sense if you don’t think too hard. I suggest a shot at this point.
After Ralph’s announcement to the class about Mike needing extra hands for Xmas, and me sensing an opportunity, I had asked permission of my boss to take the weekend off. Mike was a local celebrity amongst the restaurant community, and my boss understood my request and honored it…so long as I worked a full week next week, including dishwashing since one of our rent-a-cons vanished. I agreed, he agreed. I even got an actual note from one of my instructors declaring my urgent presence at the Farmhouse. My boss smartly slapped it away and told me to get shucking those damned oysters.
That was day one. We now jump to day three.
Day three is a little trickier. I guess it was really over the night into said day, since last call around here is 2. It happened after my restaurant’s usual epic New Year’s dinner. In fact, it happened on January 2.
After service, me and the crew would cross the street and tie a few off at the local watering hole. The place was small, almost as small as our kitchen. Anyway, way led onto way, and the cramped quarters and loud music demanded that if the patrons wanted to have a feasible conversation, they would literally have to get up in each other’s faces. My boss, his sous, the roundsman and I were getting pretty tight. Actually, my boss was already tight when he eventually showed up. After service, while we three went to clean up the kitchen, he’d go hassle the bartender and eentually disappear. Dinner service ended at 9 during the week, 11 on the weekends. The boss would sometimes resurface like a lost specter around…well, after that.
In any case, all of us were f*cking around at the bar, getting pished and sweating out that night’s strife. My boss was on a tear, undone by stress and alcohol. When I say undone, I mean it. As an example of his wound-up temperament, he once excoriated me for scooping up the mail from the post out front. One time I noticed the fistful of bills. When I offered up the letters, he snatched them out of my hand and curtly told me not to remind him of how many bills he owed, Stupid. By the way, that my was nickname there: Stupid. Go public school!
So we were yammering about some dumb sh*t when I got the foolish, drunken idea to punk the roundsman—my boss’ good buddy—by stealing and hiding his keys. My boss tore into me. A lot of cussing and flailing of arms, with much spittle. He went on and on about his crew were family—and I soon inferred, was not—and how dare I f*ck around and I didn’t respect his biz and I didn’t know sh*t from shinola and didja have fun at the Farmhouse and I’ll see you tomorrow, Stupid. Something like that. I was drunk and half-deaf. He could’ve been reciting the opening voiceover to Star Trek and I was probably nodding…well, stupidly.
The next day when I showed up for service, the boss met me at the door. He was carrying my box of mixtapes I had on hand for music during prep. He shoved them at me and said that my services weren’t needed there anymore. Something about not having enough room at the back of the house. I was stunned. Regardless of the place’s financial straits, I hardly thought my relatively short shifts five days a week at 10 an hour was that much of a strain. Hell, my boss was able to put away the equivalent of my weekly wages over the weekend across the street. I’m no expert, but I’d like to think the fracas at the bar had more to do with my dismissal than his ever-dwindling lines of credit.
An interesting aside: not long after my firing, the place folded. The joint was running in the red well before I came onboard, unbeknownst to me. The boss packed it in. He had often said, “if one more thing goes wrong…” a lot. In literature we call this a portent. The closing wasn’t long after his wife suffered a terrible accident. It was the one more thing. I heard about it through the restaurant grapevine years later. The former roundsman’s testimonial got regaled with gory details via the sous at the restaurant I was then laboring at. The sous and he were buds, and we both were already well aware of his propensity for telling tall tales. This one wasn’t.
There was a nasty incline screwing down into my place of old restaurant. The joint was essentially in the basement of an office tower, nary a spit from the parking deck. It’s well-known to the locals that we get often get icy winters here. Snow? It’s fickle. Ice? Just wake up the next day. Anyway, it turned out that incline was the undoing of my old bistro. The boss’ wife took a nasty spill; cracked her head on the sidewalk that required immediate ER attention. The long and the short, she ended up suffered long-term amnesia. For real, not that soap opera sh*t. My former boss had to spend—waste—months convincing this woman that he was her husband and they once had a life together. All she could remember after the accident was waking up in the ER. It was like that Adam Sandler movie, only not funny, even more so.
I never learned much beyond that story, except that the guy who was notorious for spreading tall tales didn’t smile when he told that one. At least according to my sous.
Where was I? Oh yeah, right. You still here? Really? Hey, thanks.
On to the next day at school on Monday. Cruelty regulates in the food biz that most Sundays and Mondays are given over to recovery from hangovers, compact family time and retool the menu for the coming week, in that order. Me? Not so much on the second and third things. The next class day, Ralph asked me about my New Year’s. I told him I got the sack. He looked shocked and sorry. I shrugged; I needed help. I had a fiancée and a pair of kids. I asked him, “If you know anywhere…?”
That was day three.
Ralph informed me that the dishwasher at the Farmhouse took off. There was an immediate opening, and Ralph assured me his word was golden. I was desperate, and there was that weekend at the Farmhouse where I was slave labor. Y’know, at Mike’s plea.
The night before the big event, I got to see Mike in full mufti. Ralph, myself and two other daring souls showed up at the Farmhouse’s expansive kitchen. Well, expansive to me. Remember, at the joint where I worked, we had to pay an oxygen tax. The Farmhouse’s kitchen was no less than a canyon when I walked in, still dressed in the dumb school whites, replete with fluffy hat no less. Presently, I wear two sets of uniforms when on the job: a polite, short sleeved, light cotton Bragard number with my name embroidered on the chest and black pants. Off site, for the occasional catering gig, I wear an all-black ensemble with checks. To this day, I find white aprons stupid (more on aprons later). My wardrobe notwithstanding, I looked the part. Enough so to fit into this maelstrom of cooking.
The kitchen proper was an addition to the original farmhouse. It even had a loft where extra dry storage was housed. The place was the size of a gym, but one wouldn’t have figured so that night. The kitchen was packed to the gunwales with Mike’s staff, ancillary bodies that were friends of the restaurant, legacies and, well, us guys. It was elegant, organized chaos; it was noisy, hot and simmering with productivity. This was gonna be a dinner for twice the restaurant’s usual capacity, and the guests were expecting a lot of gastronomic wonders and perhaps some healthy ego fluffing (the local state rep was in attendance). We all had our tasks laid out for us, Mike running point like Scorsese with a clipboard, ensuring all was on time and on task. It was a four-hour marathon run, maybe longer.
Hapless Ralph, our two comrades and myself were assigned the scutwork; menial work and the usual unglamorous detailing that made the meal go over cleanly. We were tasked to roast and later dissect lobster tails, peel and chop Brussels sprouts and parcook risotto for its station on the patio. Stuff like that, while the extended Farmhouse family worked the sauces and fabricated the meat.
I soon received my “special” assignment.
I standing around. Despite the crazed activity, I was looking for something to do. Anything than looking like a lazy bump on a log. Mike grabbed and dragged me over to the pantry station. He told me I had a vital duty to perform. I did? Mike produced a wheel of parmesan cheese the size of a radial tire and thumped the smelly thing in front of me like a dead body.
“We need shaved parm for the risotto bar. A lot of it. You need a peeler?”
I warily said I owned one as I unfurled my knife roll. This was good. Mike needed a metric sh*ton of shaved parm to suit his needs.
“Get at it. I’ll be back.” And off he went to tangle with the rest of the crew.
I considered my opponent, this edifice of properly-aged, very heavy cheese. I hefted it in my arms. It was a dense as a neutron star and smelled like a Sicilian gym locker in July. But it was now my quarry, my duty to render this hunk into feasible slivers to be melted into steaming risotto. And the chef told me to get on it. So I did.
Over a seemingly interminable length, I whittled away at the tire, becoming ever more annoyed by its rank and its defiance of being reduced to shreds. I eventually had to toss the peeler after the task; it became as sharp and a bowling ball. Mike swooped in occasionally to check on my progress.
“How’s it going, Cheeseman?” he’d say, regarding my shavings, then swoop away to oversee another piece of the eventual whole. Once in awhile, he’d again hove into my radar and check on my progress.
“Looking good, Cheeseman.”
“Go, go, go…”
“How’s it comin’, Cheeseman?”
He eventually forgot about me. With all the activity blurring around me, still being a newb and too timid to question a chef’s orders, I just kept peeling away at the tire, rolling my eyes, feeling carpal setting in and wondering if I had chosen the right profession.
After endlessly referring to my phone for what the hell time it was, I sooner or later met reconnoiter with Mike. There was a veritable haystack of parm shavings littering the table. The wheel was two-thirds gone. An hour and half had passed. My wrist was very angry with me.
Mike saw my work and laughed his ass off.
“You can stop now, Cheeseman. It’s only for 100 people.”
I regarded the hillock on the table—so high you’d need to plant a flag at the peak—looked Mike in the eye and watched him just keep on laughing. I think he almost pissed himself.
“Sorry,” he said between chuckles. “I should’ve checked on you earlier.” Then he doubled over and pointed at the Everest-like mound of smelly cheese and said, “You’re done, Cheeseman. Good work. Go downstairs, the bar. Have a beer on me.”
So I did, reeking of cheese. I had two beers, and then resumed my post back at Grand Central for my next task, shucking a cove’s worth of oysters. Ce-la-vie-de-merde. I was supposed to man the risotto station that night, but Mike felt—after my dedication to fabricating cheese—I’d be better suited as a roundsman, being the sous’ bitch for the rest of the night.
Anyway, it all went off with barely a hitch, thank you very much. The only crisis that occurred was that we couldn’t get the burner under the risotto station to remain lit. In hindsight, I guess my downgrade was in fact a blessing. At around 1 AM, when all the revelers had gone home to bed, Mike cracked open a case of the bar’s finest IPA and we all got two bottles each. Ralph and I were legal. Our culinary school compatriots, not so much. We told them to drink up anyway. It was a salute to a job well done. And it was f*cking free, so don’t rock the boat. I got home to the girl at around 2:30 AM. I truth I eventually had more than just two bottles, talking sh*t with Mike the bartender into the wee hours of the night. Don’t worry, she understood and made me change the kid’s diapers all week. Fair is fair.
She was all very awake and excited to hear about my adventure. I was whipped, drunk and happy, and regaled my experience with much relish and how cool Mike had seemed, despite the whole tire-whittling. She told me it sounded great, and was very proud of me. We got romantic and I collapsed for most of Sunday. Overall, a smart move. Hell, there was still Monday class to consider.
So those were the three days—three acts in a minor play—that eventually led to my reluctant position as head chef of the one of the most revered, progressive restaurants in southeastern PA. Hell, at first all I needed was a job, and them pots done ain’t gonna scrape themselves, boy howdy.
Look, I understand the story I’ve been relating is far from linear. Deal. Be honest, how many tabs do you open on Safari at a time scouring Facebook feeds, Tweets, porn, e-mail, iMessages and porn at a given moment? Right. Here I’m offering up straight story in related context and alla dat. Can you handle it?
Hey, you’re still here. Kewl. And there’s this thing about a movie I saw coming up. Thanks.
So there I found myself, standing in Mike’s office, getting the rundown. His sudbuster (a term I later found out that Mike had never heard of, but quickly adapted to the Farmhouse slang-wagon) had gone off to greener pastures, and the kitchen needed those dishes run through and the pots scrubbed all shiny-like. He grilled me; gave me the Logan and Briscoe routine, and declared, “We do everything here one way: the right way.”
God help me, I actually rolled my eyes. I said, “But Chef, I’m just the dishwasher.”
He cocked a brow and said, “And you’ll do it the right way.”
And so I did. I whiled the evenings away at the Farmhouse scrubbing pots, running dishes the through the machine, doing odd prep work and enduring Mike’s demented and rather patronizing sense of humor. For weeks, months, I was not me; I was the Cheeseman. “Cheeseman, do this!” “Hey, Cheeseman, I need a solid!” “How’s it going, Cheeseman?” And into the sink another pot. I was reasonably happy. I was glad to have the work. This was during the “Great Recession” so any gig that paid was a good one. I had a girl at home and a pair of kids to support. Right. So I didn’t bitch, even with the dumb “Cheeseman” tag.
So that’s how it went on. Mike and his sous churning and burning. The pantry chef baking—we’ll call her Jen—making things sweet and not shy in having utter disdain for my ass. And me scrubbing pots, running plates and flatware through the reliably unreliable machine, which on several occasions I had to reach down into the temperamental garbage disposal with a naked arm to retrieve an errant knife or fork gumming up the works, all the time having Jen glower at me, since her station was adjacent to the trough. It was fun. Sadistic, but fun. I’m a Warren Zevon disciple, so that might explain millions.
All this time, I still had to make my morning appearances at school. I burned lean tissue in the midday and grunted off the Farmhouse to scrub my paycheck into action at night. To say that I was tired as well feeling like I was going nowhere—my recent dismissal from my old gig still weighing on my mind—was akin to saying that the Atlantic Ocean was somewhat damp.
Then one day the weird happened. Out of nowhere Mike’s sous dropped a bomb. He was out by the end of the week right before business was to be picking up. I spoke with him after service and asked what gives? He said he wanted to engage in his side gig as a full time effort, working with audio equipment. He also disclosed that he was pursuing some girl, of all things. On the evening of his last service, we had some celebratory beers, bid him his fare-thee-wells and out the door he went, into the night and obscurity. Standing in the doorway, Mike turned to me and shouted these immortal words:
“All right, Cheeseman! Looks like you’re on sauté!”
I stammered, “But chef, I haven’t done sauté yet.”
Mike beamed at me. “You’re gonna learn!”
And learn I did. Fast. I applied what limited dirty tricks I learned from school and toppled onto the line. Even though Mike had the reputation of being kind of a prick, he was no less helpful and gracious towards me. Maybe it was because he was suddenly in dire straits, and needed all the help he could get, so being nice to his new, rube sous was the best way to coax acceptable results. Me? I think I just made him laugh a lot and that was enough.
After some stumbling, and a lot of pressure remedied by endless cigarettes and gallons of coffee, Mike and I were churning and burning with the best of them. He worked the grill and I sauté. He did sauces and handled beef, chicken and other former animals, I wrangled fish and veggies. I also had to do a great deal of the prep work, including fabricating said fish, tending to mollusks to make sure they were alive before service, give Jen a hand (when she’d let me) and hacking up a lot of herbs and veggies. I learned a lot, including some really kooky sh*t one would never learn in culinary school. Call them quirks of any run-of-the-mill, mad genius, bipolar chef. No cheese with fish. Blanch and shock all green veggies and herbs save sorrel, which turns a sickly, poop brown otherwise. Store mussels in a colander of ice, towels and ice. Solicit local farms for the freshest, sustainable ingredients. Always use a half apron, because it can double as a dry towel, as well used as a basket when grabbing things from the walk-in and demanded you work clean so not splatter any sh*t on your freshly pressed whites. No cheese with fish. Y’know, the kind of things you figure out standing up rather than sitting down. Big fun.
Business went on that way for months, Mike grilling, me with the pans. The regular crowd would shuffle in. Even Jen began to tolerate, even enjoy my presence. Mike began to have some faith in me. I didn’t do any major f*ck-ups overall (save once serving a steaming bowl of dead mussels), and was on time, tidy and kept the guy laughing a lot. All to the beckoning of “Cheeseman, do this!” and “Cheeseman, do that!” I was a good little elf and always did this and that without hesitation. To do otherwise was a stoning offense.
One day, Mike dragged me aside and asked me a rather curious question. I had been an obedient soldier for months, racking up the hours, breaking down way too much salmon and halibut and tooling with the menu under Mike’s watchful eye.
“Nate,” he said, holding that week’s paycheck in his hand, “I got a weird question to ask.”
“…What’s your last name?”
I blinked. I warily told him.
Mike began to snicker. He was finally going to wire me up into the system rather than pay me under the table, turned out.
“Good to know,” he stated soberly, “because I’ve been making out your checks to ‘Nate Cheeseman’ for the past few months.”
It’s nice to be respected.
Weeks on end Mike and I would crank it out. I’d still do odd prep, and he’d manage the menu and ensure everything went smoothly. And smoothly it went, for a while. I sensed after a time Mike was not happy in his post. He got mopey, leaned into me often (because, hey, I was there) and eventually took to a few shots down at the bar during the afternoon. You see, this biz can burn you out quick. The long hours. Always on your feet. The stagnant heat. The endless picking up this and setting down that. And all the time making errands to the local purveyors and stores to make sure what was brought to the table was the finest available. It was a grind, and I think that Mike was feeling the grind. But there was a nice, bright spot during those trying times that spoke to the finest.
Speaking of the finest, here’s my aside about the coolest farm I ever had the pleasure of stomping through: Liberty Gardens. I told you about more later on, remember? See? I didn’t forget you.
The Farmhouse was stationed in this little ville nary far from farmland. You could decide some Sunday to go for a spin away from the main drag and find yourself in God’s country; small farms, fisheries and independent oases of holy meal out there in the brush. One time, Mike dragooned me into a trip to see where the magic was made. He drove; I sat shotgun, very curious about where the hell he was taking me. En route, he got all philosophical about the veggies we used at the restaurant. I love veggies. I’ve never been a fruit guy, as my family can attest. I’d rather curl up to a nice helping of broccoli than a fresh apple. Sorry. It’s just how I roll.
Anyway, on this little junket, Mike disclosed a little news. Soon after I got my battlefield commission as sous chef, he laid some science on me.
“How long have you been here, Cheeseman?”
“I dunno, chef. Since January?”
“And what’ve you been pulling?”
“…Nine an hour.”
He nodded. “Well, I’ve decided to jump you up a bit, now since you’re not just the sudbuster (he did indeed like that term) anymore. Did you enjoy busting suds, Cheeseman?”
“That’s good. You’ve done all right by me. So I’ve decided to bump you up to twelve dollars. How’s that sound?”
I said nothing.
“I know that [the owner] wouldn’t like it, but figure since you’ve been so good at being my go-to guy, you deserve full pay. How’s that work for you?”
“Thanks, chef.” What more could I say?
“Where are we going?”
“Where we get our greens. I figure since you’re now working on the line, you needed to see the source.”
So we wended our way in his beater Subaru wagon along the twisting country roads afar from the home base. The further we drove, the less and less the surroundings looked like civilization that was only five miles away. I kept the window rolled down to half mast and was understandably curious about our destination.
Liberty Gardens is the local sustainable, seasonable garden spot where I live. It’s a small farm, barely five acres (give or take) with open rows of whatever fruits and veggies were sprouting that season—tomatoes in the summer, pumpkins in the fall—along with carefully tended greenhouses either nurturing herbs or securing seedlings for the next season. When we arrived, Mike went to chat with the farmer that graced our presence the time he commanded the school’s demo to negotiate prices for the new menu. I went scooting over to the rows and invaded the greenhouses to see what wonders awaited. Never had I seen such produce. Leafy greens and bright fruits. Fresh herbs you smell upon entering. Micro greens. A lot of heirloom stuff too weak for the current season but, rest assured, would be readily forced for the next. Curiously, there were remnants of rotting pumpkins slanting the rows of corn just beginning to sprout up. I later asked the farmer—whose name is unfortunately lost to memory—what was up with the rotting pumpkins along the rows. It was April, long before and beyond pumpkin season. He told me that the decaying gourds served as active fertilizer for the summer crops. In simpler terms, don’t f*ck with nature, just ride along. I was impressed. I asked Mike if we could score some kale and he grinned at me like a toddler taking his first steps and said something like, “Sure, Cheeseman.”
The farmer asked about the “Cheeseman” thing. No matter.
Back to the front:
So Mike grew increasingly unhappy with his station. It was mostly due to the constant interactions with the owner, who seldom made appearances unless something was going wrong. I learned quick that there are few restaurateurs active in their own businesses on a casual level. It’s when things were approaching the red that they made their presence known. Often bearing a scowl.
Mike took to frequenting the bar a little too often and a little too early. He tried to hold his own, but sometimes John Barleycorn grabbed the reigns. I recall one time Mike had some big expo set up for a bunch of curious housewives on how to poach eggs or some other dumb sh*t. He had a three-day growth and staggered over to me and asked, “Cheeseman, can you smell whiskey on me?”
“You smell like a bag of dicks. You going to talk to these women?”
He smiled and strolled off to the barn. He held a finger to his lips. I went back to maiming halibut. Miraculously, the hausfraus managed to learn all about the magic of quinoa unfettered by Jameson’s.
Then the day came. Or rather, the day before the day. Yeah, everything is out of order. Such can be the nature of the restaurant biz.
Not long after his wobbly appointment with the future fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, Mike took me aside into his office—the walk-in. It was early May and he had some serious news to share. He informed me that at the end of the summer he was resigning his post at the Farmhouse. Without going into great detail, he said he was unhappy, being undermined and did not want his baby to succumb to the latest food crazes Emeril would shake the dust from. Something like that. He asked me, “So, Cheeseman. You with me?”
I took his invite seriously. He wanted me to follow him. And by me following his example (minus the “not shaving” part), I frankly said, “I’m with you, chef.”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “That’s good. Thank you.”
The next day wasn’t so good. The day.
It was the Thursday before Mother’s Day. After Xmas and Valentine’s, Mom’s Day is probably the one for the most heated contest on a one-night flight all year. The second Sunday is looms large for restaurant schedules. In short, a big deal. The Farmhouse was booked solid for the holiday. Over 100 guests. Not bis, but this place only accommodated 60 a night comfortably, and there was no drape over the patio, either. And to top it all off, all the rez were more or less staggered in 10 minute intervals. That meant maybe a party of five or ten every ten minutes wanted meals, like, yesterday. Like I said, a big deal. Mom’s Day is like Black Friday in spring for eateries. Mike had been poring over the menu for a week, and the menu was more or less locked and loaded.
Then the day happened. The aforementioned Thursday.
I was in the kitchen, not doubt destroying some fish when I heard the screams. We all heard the screams. Me, Jen and the new roundsman who had been on Wednesday just an eager server to learn the ropes at the back of the house. More secure money than tips, after all.
The yelling progressed up from the basement bar, through the wait station and came crashing through the kitchen like a bull on crystal meth. Mike was furious. He stormed about the kitchen in a frenzy, more or less speaking in tongues and exclaiming sh*t about “not being some housekeeper.” He tore into the closet, scooped up his books, dropped them, attacked the oven and broke the door, uplifted the prep table and let it crash down (cracking the tiles in the process) and careened out the back door in a torrent of profanity.
Myself, the newb roundsman and Jen just stared at the swinging screen door.
The owner slammed through the kitchen door and stared where we were staring. Then he dumbly looked at us. I took point and darted toward the door.
I stood stupidly in the parking lot watching Mike kick up clouds of gravel and dust as his Subaru flew off like all the demons of Hell were after him. I remember holding a pair of tongs in one hand and a side towel in the other. It’s funny what one recollects. My mouth was agape save for two words.
“Mike just quit,” the owner announced as I staggered back into the kitchen. Duh. I went from shocked to scared to pissed in a nanosecond. I followed Mike’s lead and slammed down onto the contacts on my phone.
“It’s all yours now, Cheeseman!” he screamed.
“The f*ck you talking about?”
“…What about our deal?” I asked, recalling the confab in the walk-in. I was younger then. I’ve since learned that nothing—nothing—is secret in the biz, even if for the cold silence of the walk-in.
I grimaced, feeling my bile rising. I was betrayed! And Mom’s Day less than two days away! I actually talked through clenched teeth.
“Okay…Mike! So what do you suggest I do now?”
“Damned if I know. Good luck!” And he clicked off.
Later, Jen, the roundsman and myself stood in the driveway, shocked and slack jawed. Now what? It was Thursday. Friday was booked solid. The chef bailed. I had half a menu in my head and sense of obligation. I did what any sane man who cooked for a living would do.
I called my girl.
In short, I yelped at her, “Mike left! Mother’s Day! Pants and ankles!”
She was beside herself, beside me. I needed a shoulder and she politely reminded me of the phone bill. I verbally knelt down and blubbered about me not being qualified to do this sh*t, despite what Mike had taught me. I was a wreck and she wrecked me futher.
In simple words, imitating dozens of Hallmark cards, “You can do this.”
After the dust began to settle, I found myself with my peers exchanging looks and sharing panic. I tried my best to be composed and delegate authority; I tried to talk out what the new plan was, but I was seriously lacking. In short, I stood there with my c*ck in my hand. There was no new plan. So much so that Jen called me out.
“Wait! You are not the boss now!”
But under the f*cked up circumstances, I was. And I had to get to class tomorrow morning, too. This is why God invented reefer.
(Hey. You still awake? Awesome, and thanks. We will get to the movie. I mean it. Jeez, look at all the pages…)
So what did we do? Pulled the plug on Friday’s reservations, that’s what. We told the guests that the chef had an emergency to tend to and they could reschedule for Saturday night.
Saturday night? Remember Mom’s day? We were already booked solid! And we were gonna squeeze in, like, fifty other bodies? Yes, yes we are. The show must go on, and I was in the director’s chair. Despite my “battlefield commission,” most of next day’s prep in the can, and me manning sauté for months with very few hitches, I mustered up some nerve and explained to the co-owners we couldn’t cancel Saturday night and lose all that money, as well as lose face and reputation in the local restaurant community. Unlike the saying, bad press with restaurants is bad press. Dinner was going to go off as planned, and hopefully not like nuclear test.
What the hell was I thinking?
So Saturday night came. I showed up for the grind and around 7 AM. Service in ten hours. Remaining prep was squared away—the sh*t you could only take care of the day of service—and additional servers were on call and at the ready (more on that hitch later). The menu was in place. It was prix fixe, thank God, meaning there were only a few set meals the guests could order. I had even mended the oven door. When H-hour arrived, we figured we were ready to go. Seventy-five to 100 guests were on the books between 6 and 7:30 pm. My sauté station was loaded for bear with salmon, scallops, assorted greens and grains and a bucket of coffee. I had our baker, who was usually stationed in the basement creating wedding cakes on the grill. Her job was to sear duck, and just that.
She lamented, “I haven’t done this since culinary school.”
“Well, you’re gonna remember!” I stated. Mike’s words coming out my mouth.
The first tables arrived, and my motley crew began that long night of dancing, heat and much profanity. I’ll spare you most of the gory details, but I handled like 75 percent of the action that night, also running point over at our baker to make sure she wasn’t burning anything. Jen was a whirl of activity on the pantry. At the time she was, like, 13 months pregnant and rightfully cranky and weary most of the time, but she was a pro and a little something like the executive chef going off on an ozone trip wasn’t going to set her back. Or any of us. Away we went.
The first hour was a blur. I churned out the dishes like a dervish crackhead on truck stop speed, getting plates up on the pass as fast as I could while the printer chattered an endless litany of tickets. Faces of people I have never seen before were scooping up the entrees and bearing them off as fast as a new body poked their puss onto the line. Prior to service, and seeing all those fresh faces in the kitchen, I had to ask the owner where they all came from.
“Friends of the family,” he said plainly. “Some of them used to work here, wanted some extra cash.”
I was astounded. This extended family of the Farmhouse, most of whom were already well versed in Mom’s Day dinner, was a godsend. But it also made me feel even smaller, a rube like me, still a culinary student and the former dishwasher only 5 months ago. What the f*ck had I gotten myself into?
Service was truly organized chaos. I keep telling the servers to stall for time, gimme at least another five minutes here and there. Mo (whom later became a fast friend) was the maître’d and was the first person to (accidentally) call me “chef” during the havoc. Before service I was very testy, nervous. Running around to make sure nothing was left for chance. One thing was left for chance, however. Our roundsman bailed for that evening; I was a body short. I later learned he felt he couldn’t handle the pressure of that night’s service.
Well, me neither. Pussy.
As I was pinballing around the kitchen, checking this and pointing fingers and generally acting snippy and dickish (again, shades of Mike), I grew increasingly curt to all these new bodies that now were clogging my kitchen. “My kitchen.” Good Lord, here comes the neighborhood. Mo had gotten in my way I got huffy and rude (Me? Nooooo) to her, and belted out orders with not my indoor voice. After service I learned that Mo had a chat with the owner about yours truly. It went something like this:
“Where did you find this dick?”
The owner told the whole bloody story to her; Mike bailing…former dishwasher…still in culinary school…hail, Columbia…She later bought me a beer. Several, actually. And several more. I didn’t remember Sunday.
To say that I was in the weeds was a gross understatement. Weeds? I was in the f*cking triple canopy jungle. All the extra bodies made the kitchen hotter than usual, and all the commotion and chattering made it stridently loud. I kept having to shout at Mo about two things: what the next ticket was (before it was printed up) and please, try and slow it down. After my umpteenth plea she said, “We can’t go any slower, chef.”
It was more, more, more. Mo did her best to keep things smooth, and kept water bottles always on hand. The guests’ orders grew into a maw that could not be fed. I had to keep seriously hydrated to keep my hands from shaking. Like all other joints I had worked at, family meal was a luxury. I had been working solely on one bowl of cereal and two pots of coffee that day with a Red Bull enema to keep things running smoothly. Faster, faster, faster the tickets spewed from the chatterbox. The boards were always on fire; the slide looked like a steamer of pennants cordoning off a user car lot. Tickets upon tickets upon tickets. I did my damnedest to keep time on task. The baker would look over at me and asked if I needed any help. I just barked at her to mind the duck and to remind her how to first score it and later cut it for plating. I figured she was deep in thought about future batches of crème anglaise going sour (come to think of it, so was I). All the while I had the entire Hüsker Dü catalog caroming about my brainpan. When I get stressed out on the line, I get a certain song stuck in repeat banging around my head. That night it was “It’s Not Funny Anymore” played at 11.
Simply put, the remainder of the push was an endless loop of Hüsker Dü, seared duck, and plate after plate after plate. I had a coward’s stripe of sweat streaking down the back of my coat. My balls had retreated to the relative safety of my stomach. My hands worked faster than the sane synapses my brain could synch. I had Mike’s bellow in my ears, Cheeseman (as well as my own voice: f*ckin’ Cheeseman). Spittle on my lips, pistou on my apron, ring molds getting sticky with abuse and endless fillets of salmon mocking me. And all this time I had two sour thoughts stuck in my mind like thorns: 1) Goddam it, Mike, and; 2) I hadn’t ever tackled sauté in school yet. I should’ve called in Ralph for an assist. Come to think of it, I did call Ralph, but only to let him know our benefactor jumped ship. I’m such a tool.
More, more, more…
Finally, three interminable hours later, 130-plus covers handled, the boards on fire all f*cking night, and dessert orders eventually trickling in, I relieved our baker to help Jen with the sweets. I killed the gas, threw about a jillion spent sauté pans on the floor, tore off my apron, grabbed two bottles of water and my pack of smokes and went outside. It was much cooler out there in the herb garden. I collapsed on a bench and tried to get my eyes refocused. When my hands quit trembling enough, I brought a cigarette to my lips and tried to light it. It was my third one all day.
As I flicked the Zippo, I noticed a large, red welt on my inner arm. I had burned myself earlier in the day doing…something. Then it was just a small bump. After the heat of service the thing had swelled to the size of an angry, mocking tumor in need of surgery. I barely remember getting burnt and went to inspect the damage. I poked it gently with my finger and the damned thing exploded, sending hot fluid across my arm in an acidic ejaculation with stinging dermis beneath. Ow. Amazingly, it was the only injury suffered all day, and at my hand, no less. Call it the only luck I got that night. I still have the scar, and wear it as a badge of pride, if not a cautious reminder.
The plates were out. They were received in a reasonably timely fashion. Much wine flowed and much giddiness wafted into the kitchen from the dining room. The servers—who I’ve since learned are the most vital form of intel in a restaurant after the bartender; disregard the chef and definitely the owner—reported back with tales of satisfaction and contentment. Nothing was sent back. My two teammates rose to the occasion and Mom’s Day 2010 was fun at the Farmhouse. That’s all anyone could ask for on a holiday. Or your everyday Saturday night, for that matter. I had already finished up my break by pissing urine the color of a traffic cone—a sure sign of dehydration—on the mint and chives. Didn’t seem to affect their growth over the next week.
I manned the kitchen for the rest of the summer until a new, “proper” chef was hired. In the interim, I retooled the menu with variations on Mike’s dishes applying swindles I had learned in class. I was in constant contact with the purveyors—including Liberty Gardens and a keen Aussie gent who was all about sustainable fish—made the orders, even tweaked to sound system in the place to accommodate an iTunes account rather than the same ten CDs on terminal rotation (Thursday became Van Morrison night). And I demolished many, many more fish carcasses.
After Mother’s Day, the best (and come to think of it) only complement I ever got was from a table that didn’t know Mike had quit. They were on the books for Mom’s Day 2010, and found their meal delightful. They even came back. It is here I allow some back patting.
I managed to keep the Farmhouse running relatively smooth for the rest of the summer (including de-greasing the hoods for the first time since Carter was inaugurated). Business went on, and I didn’t see any such action after the Mom’s Day avoided catastrophe. I even got a thank you from the owner—a usually laconic soul—for keeping his biz alive. Okay, a second complement. I’ll take two over one over the usual none I’ve learned to expect from this cutthroat business.
Before I wrap up this tale from the front (“Oh, thank God!”), one more silly detail. It was customary for Mike to put his name at the bottom of his menus. You know, “John Doe, Executive Chef.” The owners and I thought this tradition should continue, to keep some sense of stability while we were staggering through the upheaval. Being a Francophile, I thought up this title. It seemed to sum up my tenure at the Farmhouse:
Chef d’la Maison. It means, literally, “Chef in the meantime.” Looked good on the menu, too. So there you go.
I’ve since moved on from the Farmhouse and have bounced around the local, incestuous restaurant community in our neck of the woods. What happened to me, despite it being so longwinded, is not that uncommon in the restaurant world. It’s like when Paul Walker assumed the role of coach in Varsity Blues. Weird, frantic sh*t are watchwords of this industry. As well as this dictum one of my instructors would beat us about the head with: “Get it done!” And to quote MythBusters: “Failure is always an option.” We hope it never gets to that point, but it does loom large over our operations.
Even though my tawdry tale is almost exclusively about sh*t going haywire, it’s not an isolated incident. Any nabob who’s tuned into an ep of Hell’s Kitchen can witness the carnage, although on the idiot box the calamity is ramped up to 11 (makes for better ratings),can understand that both shoes may drop at any given moment. Be it f*cked up dishes, purveyors f*cking up their orders, the fryer f*cking implodes, the servers being f*cking idiots, the dishwasher’s on a drunk and doesn’t f*cking show up let alone call in, the guests don’t give a f*ck about restructuring their order to accommodate their f*cking gluten allergy they’re suffering from that week, or the chef himself under such duress is hiding at the bar for a full hour before service so he can nice and f*cked up.
(Wait! Is the blog dude actually getting to the movie’s synopsis and critique now? Yes, the blog dude is actually getting to the movie’s synopsis and critique now. Oh, thank the Lord! Now please, adjust your lobster bib.)
In short, the life of a cook can get very f*cked up, very often. The chess pieces often get knocked to the floor, regardless of the gambit. Occupational hazard. It’s a hazard Chef Carl Casper has always danced with, but has never dropped his partner onto the floor before. Well, yeah, her too. And his son. And his job. And…
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) has hit an impasse. Most casual folks call it “life arrest.” But Carl’s a chef. “Life arrest” doesn’t happen, but “career arrest” does. For years, he’s been doing right in his LA bistro by his stuffy, yet prideful, magnanimous owner Riva (Hoffman). After all, Carl was taken on board at Riva’s place being the creative darling of Los Angeles’ culinary scene. Riva gave his financial all the space needed to make his bistro the talk of the town, replete with Carl, his crack kitchen crew and best kitchen tech money could provide. For years all has been hunky dory.
But Carl is not happy.
For weeks, months, years Carl has been churning out the same menu for weeks, months, years. Yeah, sure the sh*t sells, but Carl didn’t get into the cooking biz for a sense of routine. The life of a chef is radical, reckless and very left of center. It’s those aspects that make a cook find time to muck about in a kitchen, grab trapezoidal collections of ingredients and create a rhombus. It’s what got Carl the esteemed position he earned in the first place. It’s what got his cook cronies Tony and Martin (Cannavale and Leguizamo) get so amped and devoted to Carl’s craft. It also got Carl into the pants of the hot maitre’d, Molly (Johansson).
Well, despite all the rewards and comfort hard work earns, coasting never feeds a creative mind. Especially the one of a chef.
Carl sacrificed everything for his craft. His wife. His son. His house. His barely kept in check acceptable social behavior. And at the end of the day, when the rez are covered, when the post-service beers and joints are passed around, when the haughty self-satisfaction has permeated the smoky, boozy air, what’s next?
Right. Next night’s service. And the same, old, menu to serve.
Carl was once the golden child of the LA culinary scene. The next…oh, insert your rock-star chef name here. But that was ten years ago, and like his menu, Carl has become as stale and poorly kept beignets. He’s been riding on not his reputation as chef, but the cachet of the bistro he runs. He gave himself over to the place, hopeful in seeing his culinary dream come to life. Instead, divorce, estranged dad, sh*tty apartment and Riva’s guaranteed-to-be-a-profitable-but-boring-ass menu.
One night, after the gauntlet is thrown down by bigwig, online food critic Ramsey Michel (Platt), Carl feels the fire and is going to knock the socks of this windbag. This influential critic is going to a taste of a brand new menu, guaranteed to both bring good press to Riva’s place and polish Carl’s otherwise tarnished star.
This is when—in the midst of the plan, where as cooks exclaim—things go all pear-shaped.
Carl insists on running his new menu by Riva, but how is it profitable to tweak a money-making menu in order to compete in a d*ck-waving contest? Riva demands Carl to “play the hits.” After enduring a sh*tty review from Ramsey once, Carl can’t take anymore selling out. He bails on his staff, quits and goes home to hammer out the menu he wanted to sell to Ramsey.
Like they say, too little, too late.
After working himself up into a frenzy, Carl crashes his recent ex-kitchen and chews Ramsey out in public in front of some very savvy smartphone jockeys. His tirade goes viral and after this very public meltdown, Carl casts aside his former life and slumps back home to regroup.
Now with no prospects, Carl toys with the idea his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) suggested years ago so he could have complete creative control of a menu: owner of his very own food truck. After a quick vacation back home to Miami, Carl is inspired by the cuisine of his youth, and takes a shot on Inez’ idea. Of course, he’s going to need some help on this new venture, but he’s got no crew anymore, no financial backbone like the restaurant had provided and a very tarnished image as “the lava cake guy” to battle. Who’s gonna want to help this loser?
Right! Carl’s wide-eyed son Percy (Anthony)! Kid’s always been curious about Dad’s job, and with summer break, Percy’s got the time to get his hands dirty.
Well, cooking really ought to be a family affair, even if it’s almost always a dysfunctional one…
Even though the core of Chef is a theme I am wholeheartedly invested in, I was able to separate my sentiments from the actual unfolding plot and cute character study. Don’t get me wrong; of course it was the core that grabbed my attention in the first place. What are y’all, daft? I’ve punctuated many an installment here at RIORI by plugging my day job. You’d think I’d ignore this one? Philistines.
But really, Chef fell under The Standard in the “best” way possible. In recent memory I had never heard such a divided response to a movie. The critics lambasted it, dragging writer/director Favraeu through the mud, not unlike his alter ego Carl. The once cat’s pyjamas of both big budget spectacles and quirky, humorous indie films took a drubbing. Most critics tore apart Chef as derivative, sentimental drivel. Others shrugged and smiled and responded in kind, but weren’t necessary excited about the film. The box office takeaway didn’t exactly set the multiplex on fire either. Chef more or less broke even.
Well, in their defense, the critics were mostly right. Chef does have a case of the cutes running through it, and is given over wholly to the malady by the end of the second act. What starts out as a strong, manic delivery of a chef’s life at work and the life he gave up to be there gets all gooey by the film’s middle.
Audiences, however, love this sh*t. They lapped it up like a kitten with a cream-filled saucer. Admittedly, I did too. Chef is not a movie for cynics, which is odd because the opening scenes set the table—so to speak—for a story about a guy who is weary, frustrated and also driven by his work. It’s so much so that his career takes precedence over his estranged family, a career that seems to be all he is leaning on for emotional support as well as the primary definition of his whole personality. Carl is a prickly, preoccupied man, almost indifferent to everything except his menu. His ex-wife is an irritant. His son is an afterthought. The only people he really considers his family are his crew, and based on his never-ending hours at the restaurant, that’s not hard to understand. As an actor, Favreau has made his mark as a loveable loser, and his Carl as socially awkward and distant invites some much-needed humility and reality therapy to the boorish chef (another thing, Favreau really plumped up for this role. I’m not sure this was deliberate, but it does add an imposing amount of physical bulk to carry along with his emotional issues). Chefs, by nature, are simultaneously irrascable and insecure. Favreau must’ve done some top character study to execute his role as Carl so well.
All this existential angst makes Chef into a rather schizoid movie. On one hand, we have Carl’s job as life and it’s eventual disintegration. His cursory dealings with his actual family paint Carl as callow and just plain inept at being a ex-husband and Disney dad. Not a real huggable kind of guy. There are a lot of rough edges in the first act, and how he and Percy interact is rather strained. How is the audience supposed to sympathize with this irksome guy?
Here’s the other hand, which takes the movie into virtual sudden father-and-son bonding, renewed lust for life, almost family friendly fodder. It’s also where the critics got all snooty in their reviews. The fork in the road comes in the form of Percy. Amjay’s enthusiasm for both trying to have more QT with dad as well as getting in touch with what makes him tick is the anchor here, like for Carl to reality beyond the kitchen. With Carl out of a job, and Percy on summer break, father/son time comes to the fore, and the whole food truck pursuit is the classic Maguffin for a dyed-in-wool crowd pleaser: a road trip movie!
After getting the truck, Carl and Percy’s adventure follows the Hollywood redemption route almost to rote. You kind of see this coming from oceans away. Despite our intro to Carl and his cloistered life, you just know things are going to work out for the best in the end. [SPOILER!] It does, but it’s a fun ride, kind of like comfort food. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Chef’s story isn’t even close to original, and we’ve seen this warhorse trod out many times over the decades. So you gotta ask, “Hey, blogger. Stuff sounds boring. Predictable. Were the critics right? By the way, we found your pants. How’d they get so far up that flagpole?”
Like with the blues, it’s not about the actual notes, it’s how they’re played. Chef works because of the acting. We got here you’re basic character study cum family relationship tale to spin. All the actors play their roles well, even being the fill-in-the-blank ciphers they are. We’ve got the classics: a nervous chef, his lonely son, the irritating boss, our hero’s goofy sidekick and a tried-and-true villain: the hero himself. Well, that and the stupid food critic, but that’s another thing.
The acting vacillates between serviceable and enjoyable. Sure, we’re working with stereotypes here, but they’re interesting stereotypes. Carl is your textbook manic depressive chef, showing all the hallmarks that position invites. To us cooks, his attitude is par-for-the-course, but to the non-cook he’s doubtless a piece of work, a vehicle average Janes and Joes can ride on to navigate that train of thought. It’s Carl’s supporting cast that makes the movie fun, especially the characters of Percy and Martin.
Amjay’s portrayal of Percy is again another stereotype, but a squishy one that the typical audience will eat up. Percy is a generally nice kid, and his mild but wide-eyed portrayal is honest and endearing. Like other boys, he naturally wants to spend more time with his dad as well as help out in Carl’s time of need. Percy’s learned that being a chef means sacrifices have been made and has consumed dad’s existence at his own peril. Wanting to bond with dad via his profession seems natural. Y’know, to “get it.” It doesn’t hurt that Percy takes to it like a duck to soup, either.
Now Leguizamo’s Martin was a stitch. I usually find this comic actor’s work, well, pesky. He often comes across as a pest, and his acting gets in the way of the plot. Not here. Martin represents the youthful passion and naïveté that Carl must’ve once had at the beginning of his career, and it fits like a glove. Martin cracks jokes, dances in the kitchen, obviously loving what he does and makes sure we damn well feel it too. Martin’s also “the guy who knows a guy.” The Jack Dalton. He’s got connections, to both helping his former boss get out of his slump and keeping the atmosphere positive even under duress. He’s the much-needed spark that keeps the story buoyant and getting too heavy on the whole “mending a family life” bit.
Although the stereotypes played out in Chef were palatable, not all the actors were engaging. Cooking is primarily a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. Usually the only females you’d find in kitchens are on pastry, relegated to the back of the bus. Why this is I know not, but it does prove the rule. The women in Chef kinda reflect this aesthetic. Our females, Johannson and Vergara, are more wallpaper than actual participants in this comedy of errors. I know in the past I’ve alluded that Johannson is not one of my favorites starlets working today. I find her onscreen presence dull and nothing more than a pretty face. She kind of fades into the background, even when she’s trying to kick ass as Black Widow or Lucy. Her wispy style worked wonders in her breakout role in Lost in Translation, but there her character was a drifting, passive woman. You can’t play that card in every film you’re in. She’s playing it here again. Even though she gets minimal screen time in Chef, when she’s in front of the camera she’s just…there, not unlike her real-life analogues baking pies. Her presence here seemed pointless, save giving face time.
Vergara was even more a canard. Ostensibly the voice of reason in Carl’s f*cked-up life—and the person professed with the idea of the food truck, Carl’s eventual redemption and raison d’être—her performance was more or less a glorified cameo. That and to look good. But there was no chemisty, only a disconnect. You can’t even see a woman like that ever being with a guy like Carl, their temperaments so passive-aggressive. Again, she had limited camera time, and what she shared with Favreau was devoid of any sincerity or substance. It was hard to believe that Inez sincerely had her exes’ best interests in mind, despite her kindly, concerned mom nature. In short, Vergara called it in. One wonders with the research Favreau did to write Chef he took to noticing the general absence of estrogen in most restaurant kitchens. It’s reflected here, and over the course of the film it’ll slowly dawn on you that this is a guy movie reflecting a sometimes overly macho career. Cooking is a boys’ club; no girls allowed. Not much room in the movie version either.
Naturally, with the turning of events as they do in Chef, it wouldn’t even been called Chef if it didn’t have something to do with both creating, surrounding and resolving conflicts via cookery. There is a wee bit too much truth to this movie—someone did their research—and Favreau as writer/director was very cagey in dropping some science on the audience about how cheffing can affect almost every aspect of one’s life. The “hotel pan” scene alone speaks volumes, as well as how the matter of the burnt cubano is handled. Carl taking Percy shopping is an eye-opener too (he doesn’t press down on the planche. Nice), especially in the small speech when Carl buys Percy his first chef’s knife. It’s the first time in the movie dad actually bonds with his son, and it’s genuinely touching. Favreau and Anthony have an easy chemistry, and we eventually warm up to Carl through his trying to figure out how to be a father. Again, cooking should be a family affair.
There were a lot of neat scenes to that effect, and wouldn’t go unnoticed by the laymen who had never even stepped into a restaurant kitchen, let alone pick up a sauté pan. Most cooks who went to see Chef—of course all my co-workers did—found it entertaining and mostly accurate (at least with the first act). But just because you’re in the biz didn’t mean the movie was inaccessible to civilians. Quite the opposite; Chef became a family-friendly film, albeit with a lot of blue language, beer swilling and toking. All essential things in a healthy family dynamic, by the way. Granted the bridge between the first and third acts strained a bit, and the movie did have a slick, treacly Hollywood ending, but overall, Chef did a good job. It respected the madcap business antics and politics of restaurant lifers, but didn’t hammer the in-jokes and shop talk over the audiences’ heads like a meat mallet. Yeah, another food analogy. What? What did you expect with a review like this? Dick jokes?
Chef gave me a lot of big grins, both uncomfortable and pleasant with the first and second halves respectively. You could see why most critics would call Chef “drivel” and audiences’ call it “warm.” No new ground got broken here; this whole redemption-through-being-true-to-your-heart-and/or-family schtick has been reheated so many times. Still, the nice touches Favreau adds here and there keep the atmosphere light and overall enjoyable. It was enough to keep this ancient device afloat, and thereby keeping Chef entertaining. That’s all you really need from a good movie anyway.
A final note…
Not long after I left the Farmhouse, the place shut down. Something about the menu going south. I’m not sure I had something to do with that, but on a sick note, I’d like to think so. Just another chapter in the endless novel that is the biz. I said earlier I really don’t understand why I do what I do for a living. After telling my story and watching Chef, tangible answers really aren’t any clearer. I do know one thing though: all that sh*t you see on the Food Network? Bollocks. Cooking’s a reward unto itself, both for the chef and the diner, not a lot of self-aggrandizing, immediate notoriety and endorsements, in addition to oodles of Fieri cash which is few and far between…kinda like the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri.
No. You can create a mutually happy experience with complete strangers for an evening, and that’s something that can’t easily be done, say, by practicing law or medicine. I guess, like Carl, I do it out of wanting to please people in small ways by introducing a few simple pleasures into their otherwise routine day. Or dinner. I dunno, stuff like that maybe.
Oh yeah. One last thing. I promise.
A few months back at work we had our annual guest chefs’ dinner. It’s where some of the local esteemed chefs come in, put their collective heads together and serve up a five-course menu to an exclusive crowd. I caught wind my former mentor and boss Mike was going to be in attendance. I hadn’t seen him since he left me with pants around my ankles at the Farmhouse all those years ago. Of course I had to punk him.
Upon his arrival, I darted up to my station where I had a chunk of Parmesan moldering in the back of the low boy. I grabbed it then casually strolled down into the prep kitchen were the guest chefs were holding court. I interrupted Mike with a tap on the shoulder and held out the Parm.
“You forgot this on the way out.”
Mike glared at me, grinned and screamed “CHEESEMAN!” loud enough to raise the lame and the halt.
All right, kitchen’s closed. Don’t forget to tip the wait staff, lest they spit in something. Check, please! (Okay, I’ll stop it now. Put down the beer cans.)
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s charming and delightful in a fluffy kind of way. The movie has two things going for it: Accurate insight into what’s it’s like in the dog-eat-dog world of cooking for the curious, and a lot of happy-go-lucky male bonding for everyone else. By the way, three stars and a bouquet to whichever reader tallies up the number of dumb cooking metaphors I wedged into the review. I lost count.
That pasta scene? Yes, cooks are that anal. Same goes for the grilled cheese.
“So is this for sex?”
For the record, lobster risotto is boring, and Carl’s flat affect reflects that.
“Be an artist on your own time!” The usual litany.
I love Martin’s hat. It’s a conversation piece.
“We are—serving the same sh*t!”
That’s a big desk.
“Pays nothing.” “I’ll take it!”
I love the soundtrack. It foreshadows Carl’s journey towards redemption, don’t it?
The whole “it’s not from the store” bit made me almost piss myself.
When I first saw this movie, my wife saw how I was cringing when Riva spoke. “Is that really how it is?” I snickered in assent and slunk ever lower into my seat.
“In the morning, you can dip your nuts in oil and make hush puppies!” Uh, yum?
Hey! It’s Amy Sedaris doing one of her characters! Sweet!
Keep Austin weird.
“No, chef.” “That’s my son.”
Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet? Great, just what we need: a superhero with his BMI in the upper 20s. Well, it worked for Adam West.
Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson (here she is again; the girl’s résumé is seeing more holes than a Castro District Taco Bell), Sean Bean, Djimon Honsou and Ethan Phillips, with Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi.
Everyday is a good day at The Institute. Lincoln 6 Echo has everything provided for him: virtual sunshine, palatable food, tepid friends and a burning need to understand why the f*ck for?!? His supervisors feel his endless questioning might be a sign of mental defect. Then again, no one has ever argued that insanity was ever caused by exposure to a matchbook underneath the umbrella of The Institute. Then again, is seeking escape—and possible freedom—really all that crazy?
Holeeeeey sh*t. He’s actually covering a Michael Bay movie. Fasten your seatbelts.
You’re probably wondering why it took so long to get around to dissecting a movie by one of the industry’s most notorious schlockmeisters. Well cuz under The Standard, a movie had to have a tepid turnout at the box office and a “don’t believe the hype” rep. Bay’s films don’t usually have that. In fact, they clean up most of the time and people squeal about how fun they are.
The Island is the landmark exception that proves the rule.
Look. I’ve been around long enough to know that Bay’s oeuvre obeys a muse designed solely to entertain. She disregards good acting, coherent plot and any sort of pathos in favor of fun, explosions, humor, explosions, drippy acting in the name of fun, more explosions and—what the hell—defying the laws of physics and general common sense to bring us, what, more explosions? No. Making Martin Lawrence an action hero, that’s what’s up.
It’s easy to beat up on Bay. His craft is obvious popcorn fodder. There’s no cinematic merit in his CV. None of his movies are expected nor designed to win awards (barring for F/X or audio). His crap’s supposed to be FUN! And fun with a capital ‘F’ seems to be sorely lacking in other movies according Bay’s philosophy.
He’s right though! Movies are supposed to be, above all and end all, fun! So why does this former music video director (when, if you think about it, who’s more shrewd about action shots that an MTV svengali) get such a bad rap for trying to drum up a little fun?
Because he does it a dumb way. His movies pander to the audiences’ basal wants and eliminate the need to think. No real surprise there. And if his core audience starts to think about what they’re watching, Bay’s checkbook is gonna get limp. Fast. I’d like to believe that most movie directors care equally about their cinematic vision and how the audience would receive it; a give and take, if you will. Not Bay. There’s a general sense of a “make it big, make it loud, lather, rinse, repeat” formula to his movies. That and a healthy, crossed-finger hopefulness that we’ll just throw out the kitchen sink and hope it sticks. Most of the time, honestly, his theory works…for a little while.
The big problem with Bay’s movies, I think is that they don’t let you really feel anything. They’re like chugging six cans of Red Bull, a fleeting rush of stimulus. I’ve never heard of Bay’s movies leaving a lasting impression, or at least a positive one. Unlike, say, James Cameron’s movies of similar spectacle—despite all their bombast—they possess a degree of economy and earnest drama that Bay’s disposable extravaganzas decidedly lack (I consider Cameron as “the thinking man’s Michael Bay”). There’s a reason why people still revere the original Terminator and Aliens; they are memorable for their straightforward, no-nonsense action, simple but nuanced stories and all tempered with humor and human drama. In a word: subtlety, an adjective either Bay doesn’t know the definition of, or chooses not to. Seeing a Michael Bay movie is a lot like cheap sex: it feels good while you’re there, and you might talk about your conquest in a crude way (usually while drunk in bar) the next day, but it eventually slips out of your mind. Until the frantic phone calls come six weeks later.
Kidding. But really, from everyone I spoke to about him or her seeing a Bay film, most say “Eh” after a while. Not outright complaining or resentment, just resignation to, “Yeah. I saw it. Pass the salt.” I used the first Transformers movie here as an example once. A lot of my friends who saw it (and their tastes are varied as there are waves on the ocean) thought it was great. For a while. Then they began to pick it apart in conversation. Oops. They went and stepped back and thought about it. And got ever more scrupulous when the inevitable, ever-limping sequels were released. The law of diminishing returns was put into effect. Nowadays, no one really talks about the movies anymore (even Bay, who in a rare display of humility, traded off responsibility for Age of Extinction to someone else). What is remembered is a bad taste in the mouth. Granted I base this on a small sample of people, but when every one of them has more gripes than not of a particular film—or director—it gets me to wondering.
Let’s recall The Standard. The Island is Bay’s first potboiler that tanked straight outta the box office. A needful first. It got lousy reviews—even more so than those of snobby critics—a poor turnout here in the US (it fared better overseas, and probably recouped a lot in video sales; I did rent the thing after all, but this was in the name of a PSA. You’re welcome.), and probably worst of all it tarnished Bay’s reputation.
“But he already had a lousy reputation!” one might cry. To which you may reply, “Shut up, Dad!” But Dad’s right. It’s an open f*cking secret Bay’s output is trans-fat movie goodness. But it makes money. The Island didn’t. When big budget movies don’t make big money, Hollywood gets nervous. The producers get nervous. Bay’s Loki, Jerry Bruckheimer gets nervous, and might get an idea of cutting his losses and steer his eyes towards the next…well, let’s face it, the next Michael Bay.
Hollywood has dozens of such loss leaders like Bay. Such are disposable. Remember Andrew “Under Siege and The Fugitive” Davies? Neither does the 21st Century, despite the millions he made. Bay is a tent pole director. When the summer season seems bleak, give Bay some willing talking heads, a malleable script and a lot of napalm and BAM! Blockbuster gold. He has a gift, such as even sometimes I cannot deny. But it’s fleeting, like staring a campfire with scraps of bark. Lots of smoke, not heat. Gotta splash on some gasoline, and it burns for a little while longer.
Anyway, off to The Island. Told you to fasten something…
Lincoln (McGregor) has everything he ever could need. A clean apartment. A steady job. Food in the fridge. Fresh sheets. Even a best buddy. Everything. Everything The Institute can provide. But that’s not enough.
Lincoln’s utopian world is lacking something. Life. All is routine and schedules. Sure, he’s got three hots and a cot, but something is missing. That and he does not really feel at home at The Institute, with all its rules and regs. There must be a better life than this, a better world to explore, something more.
Then again, there’s the Lottery. And what’s up with this Lottery?
Ah, yes, that. The big ticket out of The Institute and onto The Island, a virtual paradise free of any infection than the corruption of Nature could imbue. Yes, to Lincoln, that’s the place to go; all questions will be answered there. Right? At least that’s what his supervisor, Dr. Merrick (Bean) assures him.
But Lincoln learns that all is not the land of milk and honey that The Island claims to provide, with its supposed comfort and succor. In fact it is an illusion, a prison of the mind, and Lincoln will have none of that. So he runs. He absconds with the latest Lottery winner Jordan (Johansson) in high pursuit of…what? Answers? Freedom? A real life?
Even Lincoln doesn’t know. All he knows now is to run, run as far as he can away from The Island…
Despite my screeds and my purple prose, I am not a movie snob. Really, I assure you. Excepting the annual February red carpet calling call, I simply like movies as is, awards not only withstanding, but ignored. I actually have enjoyed a few of Bay’s movies. Again, a few. I found Armageddon a great popcorn film, starring stalwart, reluctant action star Bruce Willis and pleasing character actor Billy Bob Thornton (did you know that was his first big role after Sling Blade? Neither did I). I also dug The Rock big time. C’mon. It starred Nic Cage, Ed Harris and Sean Connery! A bountiful trifecta if there ever was one!
Regarding Armageddon, I’m a sucker for any movie about outer space travel, be it drooling nonsense with Owen Wilson as comic relief, the fantasy a la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the adapted historical fiction like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. In simpler words, I’m all about big concepts, and Bay has used those in spades. I’m not so shy to deny spectacle like other movie-going esthetes, be it BIG or subtle. But like with most of the aforementioned titles, I need a little meat on my bones.
Most of Bay’s sh*t only has fat—chewy gristle rather, akin to my cheap, cheap sex line—and it gets pooped out faster than the THC colonic-rattled ass of mine can eject. But still, really, we need that once in a while. I’m not above such things. Dumb fun is still fun at the end of the day. The beef I have with this concept-in-practice, and Bay as a prime culprit, is that a fun movie should stick with you, like a delicious meal. Bay’s films only taste of popcorn, coated with that viscous slime known only as “butter-flavored topping.” It makes you fart a lot hours after consumption. Hours after consuming Bay’s popcorn, you would be farting too, only out of the mouth. Like I said, a year after Transformers release, no one was talking kindly much. Only farting gripes.
I have two big carps with The Island. One is purely about entertainment value, but I’ll save that for later. The other issue I take is that The Island is not original. Yeah, I know, I know. None of Bay’s scripts are. But this time I mean really not original, like the plot was lifted in full from another film, the original writers never credited. The guys who brought you Fringe wrote The Island. I’ll admit I’m a fan of that X-Files-meets-The Twilight Zone serial. I’ll also admit the show had so many plot holes one could drive a Mack truck through the first three seasons. Still, it was a goofy sci-fi lark that if you just went along for the ride, you’d get some entertainment. If it wasn’t for another cult show I wouldn’t have realized the plagiarism at work in The Island.
Back in the 90s there was this TV show called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). Perhaps you’ve heard of it. For the uniformed, MST3K was a show about comedy writers (okay, one writer and a bunch of puppets) mocking and heckling sh*tty B-movies with improv and wisecracks. Pretty simple device, got lots of laughs. One of the movies they skewered was a drippy sci-fi action flick called Parts: The Clonus Horror. The plot goes like this: we have a clandestine super-science lab where the men in white coats are growing human clones as livestock so to harvest their organs for their dying, super wealthy clientele. Of course the clones are ignorant of their design or fate. All they know is exercise and schooling, so that one day they may “graduate” and go to “America.” One clone happens upon a scrap of garbage that looks like no artifact found in the compound and starts asking questions. One question leads to another until the inevitable happens and the rogue clone escapes with his clone gal pal in search of their clients to expose the horrible truth.
Clonus was shot back in 1979, a quarter-century before TheIsland. It was a sh*tty movie then, and the recycled plot isn’t aging well. And Island writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were rightly sued for their penning of this “original” script, causing mass chaos and legal action that drained the studio’s wallet.
Apart from but akin to the plagiarism, one thing in the world I truly detest is deception. Cruel, willful deception, that is. PT Barnum once said that the world wants to be deceived. I’m sure he meant that from an entertainer’s standpoint, furthering his business. With The Island, and others of its ilk, the producers were hoodwinking ignorant audiences into scamming their money. From a businessman’s standpoint. Like I’ve said before—in contrast to Barnum’s philosophy—I firmly believe that Hollywood assumes audiences are idiots; producers do their bread-and-circus thing and watch the disposable income burn up. Clonus was not a blockbuster, and next to no one has ever heard of it, let alone seen it (not even Kurtzman or Orci, allegedly), but to be so lazy and attach a lame stolen project to a usually reliable, sure-fire blockbuster filmmaker like Bay and just figure the unwashed masses would come in droves, ignorance notwithstanding—probably not ever caring—is incredibly cynical and callous. Tinsel Town just flipped the bird to Middle America and waited for the cash to roll in.
Only it didn’t.
The crowds were indifferent and/or befuddled by this lazy movie. Steven Spielberg had to sell off his benighted DreamWorks Studio to compensate for the film’s loss leader status. Kurtzman and Orci were sued. Bay’s already questionable status was reassessed. Much face was lost.
Barnum was also credited to claiming that no one ever went broke by investing in Americans’ ignorance, or something like that. Oops. Let’s hope some Hollywood fat cats learned a valuable lesson. Probably not, since this wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time a debacle like this drops. Live and learn?
The main issue I take up with The Island is a simple one: the movie is dull. Now again, Bay’s films are never designed to be Academy Award winners. But at least The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers weren’t boring.The Island is simply one long chase scene that runs—so to speak—for over two mind-numbing hours. See Lincoln. See Jordan. See them run. Run, Linc, run! For over. Two. Hours. Me? I ran to the john three times just to move my legs and relieve myself, apropos of the running time. No pun intended there.
Okay, I’ll pull back on the rancor. I’ve already gone into overly great depth as what was wrong with The Island. Most movie snots draw straws to pick out which aspect of the chosen Bay movie was the worst. The matter is moot; we’re talking f*cking Bay here. Rememeber, do not think too much. Here, lemme show ya somthin’.
Just to shake it up some, here’s what I actually liked about the movie. Surprisngly, there was more to like about The Island that would usually be thrown to curb in most of Bay’s movies. Some stuff almost approached cinematic merit, and such merit is often kicked to the curb for Bay’s oeuvre. Most of the time.
First off, there are some nice visuals. The Institute has a definite 1984 or THX-1138 vibe here, all monochrome sterility and angles. Until it’s not. The Institute is in essence a farm, and we expect the livestock to be well cared for. But as we peel back layer after layer of levels and sublevels, the Institute’s sectors get grimier and grimier, the caretakers get less nice, the technology goes from background noise to hostile intrusion, all of it dwindles downward until Lincoln pops his head up into the Mojave. Thanks to the cinematography, all the sets here have a sense of openness, regardless of all the hustle and bustle within the Institute and later in downtown future LA. The world is just huge to Lincoln. It feels that way at home, too. It’s a nice metaphor. It’s an obvious one, but for Bay at least it’s direct.
Regarding being direct, I dare claim amid all the chasing, there were rather subdued touches, and (again) not very Bay. Some nuanced plotting is present, with allegory and further metaphor. This might’ve been one aspect that contributed to The Island’s box office pooch-screw. Bay’s audiences usually expect Bay films and all their obvious contrivances, fingerprints and pratfalls. Instead here, Bay was approaching a little depth; a message of sorts, and his vast flock puked such an aberration back down their throats. I’m not passing judgment; I base this claim against my reluctant Bay fanboys.
The Island in whole—despite or maybe because of its difficult origins—is a bare bones mash-up of campy 70s sci-fi dystopian movies, like Logan’s Run or…well, Clonus. This all might be unconscious homage, but it’s probably just rip-off. And Bay is ultimately a rip-off artist, but a very savvy one. He knows, if only on a vestigial level, he hacked into pulpy goodness circa late 70s/early 80s zeitgeist with The Island armed to the teeth with a 21st Century budget. After all, his is whole catalog is steeped in total—I mean total—suspension of belief. You gotta be in the right mindset to enjoy Bay’s films, with those delta-waves oozing freely through your brain. And what easier way is there to do this than drag the past moderate successes against a green screen? Correct. Add more explosions.
But then again…
Let’s just say Bay was just getting in touch with his inner 7-year old JJ Abrams, waxing nostalgic about those avocado and goldenrod hued space operas from the Carter administration. I think he might’ve took advantage of the studio money and made a film just for himself, for his pleasure. A tribute to those time-wasters just like Logan’s Run, THX-1138 or even Soylent Green. If that was the case, he was a genius. If that was the case. I don’t think the audience bit; the tally says so. Still, that’s something I considered while watching the movie, and I couldn’t help but muse over and made me crack a smile. For a nano with certain scenes, I approached feeling good—fun—about The Island. I actually began to suspend my belief and looked for what’s good with The Island.
Y’know what else I found good with The Island? The casting and the acting. Really. Barring Johansson’s usual oblivion, McGregor, Bean, Honsou and Buscemi all deliver solid, if not enjoyable roles. Especially our lead McGregor (in a double role!). From Renton to Lincoln, he’s always been a likeable bloke, with that million-dollar grin and rapier wit even with the low-lifes and scoundrels he plays. He never seems like a guy you couldn’t go out and have a pint with. The naïve that McGregor applies here to Lincoln is almost the only thing that advances the already razor-thin plot. His wide-eyed, “what the hell is going on?” attitude is on the mark. It’s only until the end of the movie that his acting out of character gets jarring, so for most of the film you can get behind him.
Sean Bean as Merrick is channeling a classic movie baddie: the mad scientist. Only this time, his ethics are warped by a force more sinister than madness: corporate greed. Merrick may be a scientist, but he’s got a business to run here first. The clones are not human, they are cattle. Where we see people Merrick sees hearts, livers, eyes and dollar signs. And he’s always gotta protect his overhead, that’s why he maintains the Institute as a clandestine, off the grid chopshop for the ludicrously rich cabal that need his unique services. Neither science nor service is Merrick’s honest motivation here. It’s his bank account, and very little is more distressing to a businessman worth billions at risk for losing said account. Remember all those very public financial bailouts in 2008? Right. Failed folks like Merrick could be searching for a way out, like with Eva in the bunker.
Steve Buscemi is naturally funny, regardless of his looks or his roles. Even when he tries to be scary (Fargo), silly (Airheads) or straight (Trees Lounge), he’s always comedic, and uses this to great advantage. In The Island, he’s the dues ex machina, more or less; he’s what propels Lincoln’s quest forward, as well as planting the initial seed. As always, Buscemi steals the scenes he’s in, and his rapscallion tech guy McCord is no exception. Yeah, he only gets a few scenes, but his hammy on screen time is precious, and probably the only honest comedy in the movie. The Island has a big balloon head to deflate, and Buscemi acts as the pin. (SPOILER) Too bad he gets waxed in the second act.
Now Honsou is a wild card. He’s best known for being the heavy. His characters are not exactly villains, but definitely toe the line. Here he’s a special ops guy, and essentially a dogcatcher armed with a flotilla of helicopters and a Hell’s Angels team of toughs sent out into the world to bring Lincoln and Jordan in. The same vapid blockhead operative he played in the dreadful Push gets a reprise here. But this time it works. Honsou can best be described in one word: suave. He can be smooth as well as earthy. In The Island, Honsou’s bounty hunter Laurent is charismatic despite being hard, and is the yin to Lincoln’s yang. Both characters are slow to learn what the Institute is all about, and their dichotomy adds a little undercurrent of tension in how the bland story plays out. You know, acting. No amount of explosives can correct an action movie’s threadbare plot than a little character depth can.
Of course, there’s gotta be a fly in the proverbial ointment. Not every role is well-played, and I’m focusing the lens on Johannson. Her non-acting style is rather amusing, and hard to tell if it’s deliberate or not. What’s funny about her nothingness is that it proved prescient from her breakthrough role in Lost in Translation. There it worked well, her as pawn, rudderless and innocent. It doesn’t translate well to action movies. Now granted, I never saw her act in The Avengers; I never caught the film (Again? With the beer cans? Come on), but her bit part as the future Black Widow in Iron Man 2 left me with a yawn, despite her well-choreographed kung fu moves. She’s not an action hero, there’s too little, well, action there. Don’t get ahead of me. There are plenty of cool female action heroes out there. Sigourney Weaver of the Alien franchise, Linda Hamilton as Terminator’s mother-of-the-future (Wait. Cameron again. Hmm). Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark and more recently, Carrie-Ann “Trinity” Moss of The Matrix fame and also Kate Beckinsdale of the pulpy Underworld series. Somehow Johansson’s pretty face is supposed to make up for her ultimate damsel-in-distress-disguised-as-sidekick schtick. It didn’t fool me, and since she’s so low-key, how the hell does she keep getting roles in action films? I thought a prereq was to be, y’know, active.
Oddly enough, the various tech flourishes with the reliable acting—a thing that usually assists in a movie’s success—were all present here, and should’ve made for a zippy pace. But The Island has got to be the slowest Michael Bay move I have ever seen. Again, that damned pacing. And yet, this tempo flaw might’ve been a strength. Although deliberate, the calculated sighs dispersed here and there allow the audience to breathe, if only to get choked again moments later. Maybe here, Bay was trying, however slightly, to inject a bit of philosophical musing to temper his stock-in-trade bravado. If this was an attempt at allegory, then good for him. If not (and it probably wasn’t), it was too bad his audience failed to follow the trail of crumbs. It felt like with The Island, Bay was trying to ape Cameron. It didn’t work. It had to have flow, with reliable breaths of pathos. Here they were sputtering. I’d like to believe that Bay tried.
I’d like to believe that.
So, what have we learned? First, don’t plagiarize. Second, don’t attach your plagiarism to a jillion dollar investment. Third, Bay’s films are chewing gum, and people like it that way. Fourth, people are stupid. Fifth, don’t let a hack, former Coca-Cola ad director play with nice things, even when he wears silk gloves. And finally, don’t let said director infamous for big budget ka-boom-o-fests try to stretch himself. Just let the guy blow sh*t up and not rock the Hollywood budget boat.
“Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly. The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.”
Rent it or relent it? Relent it. The Island is boring, and—believe it or not—doesn’t have enough explosions. It’s a boring B-level sci-fi flick adapted to fit a big budget movie. And it’s not even an original boring big budget movie. Pass the salt.
“What kind of tests?” “Nice tests.” Bean at his most sinister.
Was Bay repaying a favor to Michael Clarke Duncan? He got star billing in the opening credits and was only on screen for, what, 8 minutes?
“God’s the guy that ignores you.”
I need a flask like McCord’s. I need one.
“At least you had a bike.”
Looks like in this future LA finally solved the mass transit issue.
“Educated to the level of a 15-year old.” Not unlike the typical Bay demographic. Zing!
What’s with all the signage? Is it something to do with finding one’s way? Bay was never much for subtleties.
I noticed the 1984 prints in Merrick’s office. I’ll leave it at that.
“Boy, you’re in for a treat!”
Nice promo for Cadillac here. Even when Dad came by and caught me watching this movie, he said, “That’s a nice Cadillac!” Now I’m no gearhead, but I’ll trust my father’s Porsche-owning opinions.
Whenever I keep looking at the timer, there’s a problem.
“You still think there’s an Island?”
It’s tough to put a crappy summer vacation in perspective when you’re stuck in the airless station wagon, sitting in the cargo bay, just staring out the window from The Way Way Back.
Robert Downey, Jr, Mickey Rourke, Gwynth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johanssen and Sam Rockwell (with of course Stan Lee).
So now the world’s aware of his identity as Iron Man, Tony Stark must contend with both his declining health, a would-be nemesis with ties to his father’s legacy and keeping the straight image of legit industrialist and armored avenger. That and keeping his boozing in check.
A tale of vengeance and fathers and scotch? To the movie mill!
The Rant (and it is indeed a rant)…
What is it about sequels that polarize us so? A good story demands. The audience wants to know, “Then what happens?” A sh*t story demands…not a lot. At least, along thinking man’s curves. Hollywood has probably churned out more sequels than original movies, not that story has demanded it. That was never really the case. Hollywood exists, like any other enterprise, to make a profit. And if one of their properties wants to go franchise (with a healthy backing on name recognition, like say…Marvel Comics), they sally forth in hopes to make a profit on the value of “Then what happens?”
Since the first X-Men movie, Hollywood got hip to the idea of making movies from comic book plots. Nowadays, they’re expected fodder come summertime (at least). And since most comics are serial, there’s always gonna be another story the Wednesday next. There’s always the “The what happens?” at the end of every comic book story arc. Movies? It’s a gamble. Depends on how well the story was executed. Spider-Man demanded a sequel, since it was so well done and Spidey’s universe is rife with stories to draw from. The X-Men franchise demanded a sequel simply because the cast was so huge and ever expanding therefore demanding more story and more story and more story (fact: writer Chris Claremont was the head writer for X-Men for sixteen years straight. A feat no other comic book writer may ever top). The Fantastic Four…ummm, I’m gonna go watch Blade again.
Needless to say the proliferation of comic book movies, with their already storyboarded scripts, offer up sequel opportunities a-plenty. Like I hinted at above, sequential stories can be a crapshoot. It’s a checks-and-balances system of “can we make some money?” versus “is it worth trying?” The first Iron Man movie was very rewarding. Logic in Hollyweird dictates that if it worked the first time, it’ll work the second. And the third. And the fourth. And therefore is how the Fast and Furious legacy began. But seriously, like other superhero crusades, Iron Man also has a rich history to mine. Not as well known as, say, Spider-Man, but still being extant for almost fifty years counts for something, right?
Right. So, about the sequel thing. There are precious few sequels that are worth their salt in the history of film. The Godfather, Part II, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, from what I’ve heard The Lord of the Rings, pt. III (I was never much for fantasy. See the Oz, The Great and Powerful installment) was pretty decent, and a good portion of the James Bond and The Thin Man movies was a lot of fun, if they even count as sequels. Still, I think most (thinking) movie-going folks raise an eyebrow whenever the story is expanded, even if there is enough grist in the mill to keep it going.
Me? I think I’ve always been suspect of sequels, since so many of them seem to obey the law of diminishing returns. More money for less art and all that jazz. Diluted story, continuously wrung dry by the likes of Bay and others of his ilk. If there’s the “Then what happens?” feeling going on, I’ll play along. But five-plus installments of Saw? Endless derivatives of Halloween? Transformers 8: When Tickets Cost Fifty Bucks to Stream (I f*cking hate Michael Bay), then I get not only suspect, but downright hostile (surprise!). Sequels are generally put out to empty our pockets, regardless of “Then what happens?” Such cases reminds me of when my kid is wont to ask about a favorite story. But she’s seven, and after the ending of a seriously closed book. But since Iron Man is aimed at alleged grown-ups, and has a full and somewhat unplumbed history to draw from, even I was curious as to…well, you know. Scuttlebutt told me that this sequel was inferior, tired, Standard-worthy material. Welp, here’s what I divined.
But first, to the synopsis…!
Tony Stark (Downey) has been outed. By himself. He is indeed the armored adventurer Iron Man. And, oh, what a wonder he has done as his cyborged self to better the world with his high tech hubris. Peace in the Mideast! A deterrent to possible nefarious nuclear activity in North Korea! A danger to your liquor cabinet! It seems that with great power…oh, save it for another guy. Stark just wants to have fun as a superhero, a household name brand and a potential franchise. However, it’s very unfortunate that he’s been heist by his own petard.
Turns out that the very tech he created to maintain his mini arc reactor heart is also killing him, as well as any excessive activity in his Iron Man suit. He knows time is running out, possibly for himself and the half-life on his Iron Man tech. After all, he learned from his father Howard (Mad Men’s John Slattery, cool cameo!) that the future is possible, if you learn how to mine it. That being claimed, it could only be a matter of time for another questing soul could capture the science that made Stark Industries so proud and powerful.
Someone did, and has passed it onto the son. Unfortunately, this son is a tad more maleficent than Howard’s.
Howard Stark’s industrial fortune was co-built with a very silent partner. Anton Vanko, lost in the shuffle that is the march of progress, becomes the flipside of Howard’s rich empire; destitute, dying and wasting away with his son Ivan (Rourke) in a hovel in a forgotten part of Russia. Upon his deathbed, Anton urges his son to follow his footsteps and continue the research that he started in hopes for Ivan to carve out a slice of the good life denied him by the whims of fate. And the Stark family. With a grinding of metal teeth and a taste for vengeance on Tony Stark, Ivan sets to work on said research, a virtual mutation of the arc reactor, this time with energies flowing outwards instead of in.
That’s not all which is amiss and unawares in Tony’s world. His Iron Man tech has also drawn attention from Congress, seen as a portable WMD worn by its maverick and often-reckless owner. With such unregulated power running through Stark’s enterprise (like he one made one suit, please), it was only a matter of time before the powers that be and the US military wanted a piece of Iron Man.
Now our hero finds himself attacked on both fronts. One side from a would-be avenging enemy that demands his share of the glory, and the other flak from the country he tries to defend. That and there’s this business of trying to run a trans-global company dynasty with his own body betraying him. Anthony Stark has seen it rough playing the hero, but is it his own humility and mortality going to be his downfall?…
As far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is just okay. Then again, most sequels are just okay. As I mentioned above, sequels are a hit-and-miss kind of venture. The producers of Iron Man 2 tried to make lightning strike twice by repeating a mistake that happens with sequels to successful original movies: simply repeat the formula. What worked so well with the first Iron Man film is that everything was new. I mean, the plot wasn’t. There are only so many plots Hollywood writers can draw from, and the “humbled hero redeemed” is a classic theme and was put to good use with energy and humor in Iron Man. The second time around, well…It’s not so new anymore.
Iron Man 2 establishes a new concept I’d like to dub “sophisticated camp.” There’s a lot of cartoony flash-and-dash here, underlined with some drama that could be regarded as tongue-in-cheek. At least I thought so. This film feels a lot more carefree than the first, and it moves at a breakneck speed. Not as, dare I say, “heady” at the first Iron Man with its pseudo-socio-political undertones. Iron Man 2 has rapid-fire pacing, and I was unsure if I could keep up, let alone appreciate it. Despite that this movie was more freewheeling than the first, it lacked the verve of the first movie. This sequel played like a by-the-numbers action movie, period, with a lot of meta, subtle in-jokes and the crashing of metal on metal. Like I said, repeat the formula.
However, I liked the feel of the movie. Its breezy nature, though at times teetering on plain goofy, was what felt like a good waste of time. Part of the thanks falls to the director for that one. Jon Favreau has a style that is whimsical yet demands your attention very sternly. The scenes may be full of unrestrictive joking, winking, speeding and hamming it up, it does get in the pocket where the fun meets the drama (such as it is). There is substance behind all the antics, but it takes a keen pair of eyes and ears to grab onto it.
Speaking of the humor rife throughout the film, there were a lot of little touches that I dug. I already mentioned the in-jokes, but there are also quite a few clever verbal segues and cues. One I liked was shortly before our villain Whiplash AKA Ivan Vanko exacts revenge on Tony with his new weapon, hanging out in the pit crew on the Grand Prix wearing a helmet with “Intervention” emblazoned on its brim is pretty witty.
Since we’re talking about Whiplash, I really enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Iron Man’s new foe. Rourke was never considered the strong, silent type back in his heyday. But it worked here. He was menacing and funny, and used that battle-scarred mug of his to great effect (boxing sure took its toll on Mickey, eh?). He did have a certain presence in the movie. Was it charming? In a whacked-out kind of view, yeah. Right. He was fun. What makes me wonder is why the studio chose such an obscure villain as Whiplash to be the antagonist of this film? Because he looks cool has my vote.
More on the acting. Downey as Stark is smarm incarnate. He’s like the cool kid in high school with the flash wheels and the blonde, dimwitted cheerleader girlfriend in the trunk. The Family Stark abode was the place to go when his parents were out of town and the keg was in the basement. Downey is a great actor. He’s always been left-off-center funny but can really tear into it when he has to. You can see he relishes this role. An aside: when I first caught wind that Downey was going to portray Iron Man, I thought it was a stroke of genius. My fellow comic book heads hemmed and hawed, for reasons I never got (comic nerds are a cagey lot). But look: here’s actor with a well known, well publicized substance abuse problem, has had scrapes with the law and habitually shot himself in the foot due to his own hubris. Sounded like Stark material to me.
Don Cheadle is a criminally underused, underappreciated actor. He is very literate, earnest and confident. He replaced Terrence Howard from the first film as Rhodey/War Machine here, and it was for the better. Despite the fact Howard looked more like Rhodes in the first film, Cheadle is better at delivering lines. Howard bounced back and forth from stern to…stern to…did he even enjoy the role? Cheadle really dug into his role. Then again, I think his delivery was troublesome and it’s mostly due to him undertaking mediocre roles. He’s better than that. (About the debut of War Machine: it was somewhat in line with the canon. But the mano y mano scene was kind of corny. I mean, really. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots?)
Sam Rockwell as Hammer was the wild card. He’s a wheeler-dealer, and that kind of characterization stinks of a summer movie, this kind of heavy. It was kind of a bait-and-switch, with Whiplash seemingly posing as the head baddie (remember Christopher Walken in Batman Returns? Uh-huh). Rockwell is too hammy. Professionally, I’m a cook. The other day I nicked my thumb (just bear with me). It happens. However as a cut heals, and has to be sealed under a bandage. A certain “scent” of the healing sets in. The wound absorbs the toil of the day. The day consists of maybe 12 hours on average. That means very many times dipping it into salt wells. It stings and so does the smell of the wound. So smells Rockwell’s performance. I guess what I’m saying is I could’ve done without Rockwell as Hammer. I mean the role was good, just poorly acted.
By the way, Scarlett Johannsen is in Iron Man 2. Moving on.
For years in the comic book, it was kind of an open secret that Tony Stark was Iron Man. I liked the fact in the film that him outing himself did not result in the usual crap storyline of now the hero’s friends and family are in mortar peril. Stark just uses it as a smart business ploy. And this could be his undoing in a different way. If there is a message to Iron Man 2, it’s the classic we have met the enemy, and he is us. I suppose you have some have some meat on the well-chewed bone to satisfy the human equation.
But overall, this sequel lacks gas. The first film worked better because of more internal drama. You know, the human factor. This one traded in spectacle. Pretty good spectacle, but you can’t dig for gold in a silver mine (yeah, yeah. An Elton John lyric. I’m not beneath some things). If anything, Favreau with all his wonder-dealing is too slick. With all its whiz-bang, the movie’s a bit clunky. Despite all the snappy dialogue, there is too much exposition. In the final analysis, Iron Man 2 is schizo movie. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but it’s been done before and better. There’s a lot to carp about here (there’s a shock), but it’s mostly minor. But there’s a lot of it.
I guess I really wanted to like Iron Man 2. A part of me still does. Did Favreau capture lightning in a bottle the first time? Kinda, yeah. But was this sequel another exercise in separating the audience from their money, capitalizing on the ravenous appetites of more noise? Naw. We were operating on the “Then what happened?” dynamic. And there always more to happen in a comic book franchise.
I heard there was a third installment of Iron Man. Hmmm…
Rent it or relent it? Coin flip. It depends on what you’re tastes are. I’m gonna relent it. But if you want to watch it, be sure you’re wearing the proper lenses.
John Slattery as Howard Stark! Garry Shandling as Sen. Stern! Stan Lee as Larry King! Exclamation points!
“I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” Ironic Nixon salute.
Once when I was musing with comic book dealer Jeff (shortly before the first Iron Man came out) I claimed, “You know who’d make a good Jarvis? Paul Bettany.” When I finally saw the movie and read the closing credits, I accidentally smacked my fiancée in the face with surprise. Guess I won…something.
“Don’t say wind farm; I’m already feeling gassy.”
I love the soundtrack.
“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut!” Only Sam Jackson (that and the Pulp Fiction throwback).
“Coffee Bean?” More meta for Marvel zombies.
“Why is drone better?” “People make problem.” Yep.
I was a kid in the 80’s and getting into comics when I first read Iron Man I thought he was a black guy. Then I didn’t know of any black superheroes, so I was entranced. Later I learned that Tony Stark was MIA as Iron Man due to his alcohol abuse, and Rhodes took over for a time. I was bummed that Iron Man was originally a white guy. Needless to say that since then, I’ve been a big backer of War Machine in the funny pages. He came across as more focused, tougher…and sober. And he had a bigger armory.
“Nice work, kid.”
By the way, Black Widow is a lot older than she seems.
What, another comic book film? Not again! Aw, c’mon. You gotta get into The Spirit of things!
Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner.
A pair of LA detectives go undercover to solve the mystery of a murder of an unknown Hollywood starlet. No big deal, really. Just another kid from outta town who lapped at the wrong end of movie star promise, right? Well as the small investigation deepens, the answer becomes decidedly no. A very heavy no. Looks like the late chanteuse has some very serious connections in ol’ Tinsel Town. She operated pretty fast for a nobody.
Was she a nobody?
To be read in the style of James L. Cain (ahem):
LA is a spectator city. The kind of sprawl that either invites or repels lowly nobodies full of dreams and slim billfolds, seeking fame or fortune out here in the hidden desert. It’s the place where both dreams and delusions hold sway like girls hold hands between playground swings. This is the place where dreams are built regardless of grip. Hollywood. It screams attention. It’s the hub of a million failed fantasies, and barely a keyhole view into the very few fortunate souls who managed to “make it” by sweat, grit or luck. The very few can intoxicate any hopeful Sally from the Midwest, the usual token swept up in the dime matinee back home. That’s the place where the germ of the seed of the idea of getting out of the two-pit clodhopper drag gets born. There is golden gleam in the eye of the lens and the eye of the hopeful in that willful daughter. The glint of opportunity. Of riches and status and flashbulbs galore. It all just has to take a chance encounter with one of thousands of scouts to pick you out of a crowd, brand you as “the one” and get you a quick, direct and ultimate seamy deal with a nobody that posesses the other kind of lens and then you’re to the quick. The first bite of the spectator city. Here is where dreams are made real, encouraged by dire need and a hopeful grasp at the hem of the Warners’ coat. Leo the Lion roaring in your mind. RKO spitting static across the planet. Republic and its goddam eagle. And a tugging at your hip that brings it home in a hurry. It’s still all a dream, but a salty, sweaty dream. In LA, where all things are possible depending on which side of the lens you are. You find yourself woozy, under the spell of the potential limelight, that dream so close to your grasp you miss the reality. The fact that you’re fresh meat. That you have no pedigree. That you’re fresh of the bus, reeking of turnips. That you’re an easy mark. That the dream is just a delusion. It’s the thing that kept you off the spike. To endure the endless belt across your back. To someday spit in the eye of your old man who couldn’t f*ck you but damn well made sure you knew what his shoe across your backside felt like. In Hollywood, yes, there is the oasis. Anything to get out of Kansas alive. It may not work out. It may be an encounter with fate. Hell, you might get lucky and Selznick might frequent that fruit stand you hit up for second apples. Maybe you’ll just be practical and hold onto the four dollar flat with the lumpy bed and keep the offhand rain off your broke ass. But LA is a spectator city. It’s just champing at the bit to See. You. Fail.
Back to the 21st Century.
The above was written under the terrible influence of duress, nicotine, whiskey and bile for the slice of life that was de Palma’s The Black Dahlia. My sh*t was homage, not unlike what the “Demon Dog of Crime Fiction,” James Ellroy does to pay the bills. To be honest, I’ve never read a single Ellroy novel in my life. All I know about the guy is his pedigree. That and his big screen adaptation of LA Confidential more or less launched the American careers of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (for good or for ill). He’s like the E L Doctorow of LA crime fiction (Doctorow is the only analog I can think of…since I’ve read his sh*t). It’s kind of hard to gage a writer on reputation alone, but from what I gleaned from The Black Dahlia adaptation, it’s a f*ckton of difficulty to raise the spirit of a book to the celluloid reality of a movie. It’s like a crane extricating a garbage scow from Boston harbor. At low tide. Dead fish f*cking everywhere.
Here’s the deal. I’ve already skewered films here at RIORI that were based on pre-existing media. You get expectations. For this entry, I’m engaging in an act of bad faith. Have never read an Ellroy novel, but do know of his credentials. Know his esteem. Understood that if you f*ck with his material, you’re gonna get drivel. I had no expectations, no understanding…and yet I got drivel from a director whose resume reads like a Sunday drive down the coast of Calais on June 6 circa 1944. In short, I know de Palma has a very short list of good films that keep his resume aloft while in the meantime he directs chunks of ABC gum.
The Black Dahlia was an exceptionally chewy wad…
It’s Los Angeles, 1945. The war is over, and LA has evolved into a powerhouse of business and industry. Apart from oil, the biggest business is showbiz. Hollywood over all. It’s the lure of glitz and glam that enthrall the most game of would-be it-girls. All that money, all that fame, is all a perfect stew for an underworld of sex and scandal. That and the occasional dead body of an unknown, defeated actress discovered in a forgotten part of the city.
Elizabeth Short (Kirschner) was just one of a thousand Hollywood hopefuls that hopped a bus from the Midwest to break into the movies with stars in her eyes, youthful naïveté, and a half-baked idea of seeking fame without talent. She came to the big city, did some screen tests, had reality smack her upside the head and got work in stag films. Some budding acting career. Oh, and then she was found eviscerated in a field somewhere.
It’s just another murder mystery in LA, but still, the grisly nature of the crime…it’s unlike anything the LAPD has ever seen before. Time to get the Force’s best and brightest on the case. Or we hope they’re the best and brightest. This case is going to be one for the angels.
Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt) are old chums that go back a ways, from their salad days as boxers up until their turn as cops. They have a palpable rivalry, and have an unconventional method to their madness. This isn’t your average murder case, after all, and as Blanchard’s marriage to Kay (Johansson) begins to suffer due to his obsession with the sensational crime Bucky discovers a troubling link between the victim and the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a prominent socialite and the daughter of one of the town’s most connected key players…
I’ve kept the synopsis straightforward, with a minimum of my usual purple prose. I don’t want to talk about the actual movie much. It made me mad. The Black Dahlia is the most unintelligible, inscrutable wandering crime drama I have ever seen (for this blog anyway). I had to watch it twice just to make sure it wasn’t me but the movie that was so confounded. I had no idea where this film was going, the narrative was so sloppy. And what really pissed me off is for a two-plus hour murder mystery movie, the Maguffin was touched upon for maybe 15 minutes. It was a soap opera bookended by a grotesque murder that neither lead seemed very invested in. Not so much a murder mystery than a character study, with characters I invested very little in.
In short, I didn’t like The Black Dahlia.
First off, the film employs a rather dubious device: narration. It’s got the Blade Runner principle going for it, flat and mostly a distraction. Hartnett’s delivery is in such a low voice it sounds more like an incoherent croak. I pointed out in my ripped seam for Cadillac Records, narration can be a rather tricky thing to use to enhance and/or embrace a story. The narration here was less of an embrace and more of a ball gag.
Hartnett himself seems out of his element here, awkward. He’s got the looks of an aged-out Disney Channel sitcom star. What’s more is here’s one of the few character types in Hollywood that is a stereotype but endlessly fun to watch: the tough gumshoe. Hartnett could’ve chewed it up a little better by adding a little ham.
Speaking of ham, we have the seasonally unreliable Aaron Eckhardt as Hartnett’s foil. If Hartnett underacts, then Eckhardt goes over the barrel with goofiness. The boxing scene alone was an embarrassment. Here we have him chewing scenery and vacillating between clown, cop and supposedly devoted romantic. Neither he nor Hartnett were very convincing, let alone comfortable in their roles.
Johansson is one of two (two!) femme fatales in the movie, and boy is she awkward. It’s as if she’s trying to acclimate to her new found “It girl” status. A simple, semi-sleepy indie film like Lost in Translation may work for an underspoken role like that one demanded. To flip the coin and be sassy as well as demure here didn’t show her having much range, just a cute face.
A surprise however was that Kirschner had the best scenes in the movie, albeit the shortest (and in flashback no less). She acts very well because the role itself demands actual acting. The hungry young starlet is a classic movie staple that can veer close to cliche, but Kirshner puts it out as the first naive nymphet whoever tries these stunts and trappings that come with the archetype and might fail. There is a sense of urgency. A keen eye should be on baited breath to taste what happens next. After all, she is the Black Dahlia. The movie’s reason for being. Too bad it forgot that.
I don’t want to get into Hilary Swank at all.
The Black Dahlia is a half-baked attempt at noir (not unlike my overwrought intro to this week’s installment). There’s an attempt to create a period piece here, but it’s too angular. There are all the trappings of lousy noir here, despite the cool camera trickery and good cinematography (the only things I’m certain that I liked about the movie), namely trying too hard to be hard-boiled and atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere here. No subtlety. Like with the opening scenes of a street riot with none of the authorities doing anything to quell the mob, the film beats you about the head with questions like “What the hell is going on?” or “What is trying to be said?” Such questions I was keenly aware of every time a scene was cut to frame the softer, “human” sides of the characters. This is supposedly meant to build up a backstory, but all it did was confuse me further.
A lifetime ago I reviewed another true crime murder mystery, Zodiac. That film also examined the civilian lives of the protagonists minus the “period melodrama” as I call it. It kept the tension hotter than the deliberate melodrama in The BlackDahlia.
So I had a very hard time following the narrative. I had very little emotional investment in the characters. I had expected to see a murder mystery movie. Instead I got flash, a poor script, lousy acting and—you guessed it—bad pacing. Tsk tsk tsk. This was a very wobbly, under confident, soulless movie that was relentless in its wandering storyline and unreliable in not only keeping my attention, but also an ability from keeping my gorge buoyant.
The only thing that was reliable in the film was de Palma’s flair for violence. Lucky you.
Rent it or relent it? Do I have to say it? Please, relent it. I’ll believe that James Ellroy deserves better.
“She won’t mind.” The most efficiently clinical post-war medical examiner ever.
kd lang. A little on the nose, yes. But she sings well, so I’ll give it a pass.
“Old beef. Pot roast tonight?” Quite clever. I credit Ellroy.
Kevin Dunn is a very underrated and reliable character actor. He only may have spent maybe 5 minutes on screen but was efficient and smart. Worthy of the ticket.
“Hollywood’ll f*ck you if no one else will.” Again, Ellroy I hope.
I love how back in the old days the movie marquees would announce who the stars of the film were. Unlike today as it is an unwritten rule to declare unapologetically the reasons you went to see the film. It’s (hopefully) the acting, of course!
What is it that makes two women making out such a turn-on? Never worked for me. It’s just two more women who have no need for me. No double kisses for the critic.
My wife caught maybe seven minutes of the movie and called it out as dumb. I was stupid and watched all two hours, twice. My wife’s a smart guy.