Bryan Stephens, leader of the Cafe Wha? House Band with vocalist Mike Davis (left) and guitarist Amadou Gaye (right). Photo courtesy of Cafe Wha?
The Cafe Wha? House Band bills itself as “The Best Damn Band in New York City.” I wouldn't know. I’m just a tourist. From what I heard last night, for a band to be better, they’d have to be the second coming of the Asbury Jukes. They'd have to be the Asbury Jukes. The music ranged across eras and styles, mixing rock, funk, blues, soul, salsa, and pop standards with recent hits, band members taking turns fronting mostly covers but covers that to me often sounded better than the originals. It'd be blasphemy to suggest band leader Bryan Stephens' rendition of “Solsbury Hill” was at least as good as Peter Gabriel's original so let's pretend I'm not suggesting it. But after hearing his “Take Me to Church” I'm thinking who needs Hozier and his and Kim Summerson's duet on “Need You Now” killed me deader than any other version has killed me and I'm routinely killed by Adele's own duet with Darius Rucker.
Like all good bar bands, they want the crowd up and dancing. A good third a third of the crowd was happy to oblige. More might have joined in but there wasn't room. There's no dance floor. You want to dance you do it in the one aisle between the booths against the wall and the tables in front of the stage. That means you do it in a long double file line with other customers coming and going and the waiters and waitresses trying to get by with trays of drinks and food. Last night's crowd was mostly twenty and thirty-somethings with more than a few people in their forties and just enough geezers scattered here and there---including a boothful celebrating the birthday of the most geezerish member of their party---that the forty-somethings could relievedly observe to each other they weren't the oldest people in the joint. But it looked like only twenty-somethings got up to dance and all of them were women. They included a contingent of six tall blondes and one short brunette we'd had to wait to be seated before we could make our way to our own booth, a fact I mention to emphasize the narrowness of the aisle as much as for the lovely imagery. The blondes and the brunette danced right in front of us, singing along with songs that were hits when their parents were in grade school. Two of the blondes were wearing 70s vintage outfits they must have scavenged from the closets of their mother's old bedrooms at their grandparents' houses. One wore a flowered peasant mini dress over mustard orange tights, the other a white peasant blouse and a filmy pair of paisley bells.
Like I said, the waiters and waitresses had to work their way through the dancers, dodging and weaving, moving as quickly as they could while being careful with their trays. Most of them went about with a mixture of amusement, resignation, and detachment, treating getting around the dancers without spilling drinks or colliding with the paying customers or each other as just part of doing their jobs. A few seemed to think it was a fun and interesting challenge and a couple moved in time to the music with their heads bobbing as if they saw themselves as part of the dance. But one appeared to be taking it personally.
The dancers were to her what traffic is to a cabbie trying to get a pregnant passenger to the hospital before she gives birth in the back seat.
While the rest of the staff went about either expressionless, as if trying to pretend the dancers weren’t there, or with weak, apologetic smiles, silently signaling how sorry they were to have to do their jobs and get in the way of the dancers’ fun, she wore a no-nonsense frown that had such seriousness of purpose and concentrated force behind that if any of the dancers had taken their eyes off the band and met her gaze it would have thrown them out of the aisles in all directions to land in heaps on the tabletops and in seated customers’ laps. She was short and shapely, not heavy but solid, very pretty despite her frown, even because of it, with lots of soft, springy black curls that had probably been neatly in place when she started her shift but were now coming loose from their clips at all points. The wait staff wears the requisite New York City black, the men in t-shirts but the women in camisole tops so there’s plenty of smooth skin and hints of cleavage on display, but on this waitress the effect was more athletic than sexy, due, I think, to the way she carried herself as she charged back and forth through the crowd. The other waiters and waitresses clearly saw it as their duty to avoid bumping into the dancers. She clearly thought it was the dancers’ job to get out of her way if they knew what was good for them and on several of her fastbreak trips by us she looked like she was ready to start throwing elbows. That was when I could actually see her as she went past. Because of how short she was she was often lost from view in the crowd and the only way I knew where she was was to follow her tray when it floated by over the heads of the dancers as she carried it straight-armed and perfectly level high above her.
One other thing to note about her.
The staff and the band at Cafe Wha? are a fairly diverse bunch, the crowd somewhat less so, but besides being all women and all very young, the dancers were all white. She was black. Which doesn’t signify in Greenwich Village the way it might in other parts of Manhattan and the boroughs. What it did was call attention to the class differences generally inherent in all interactions between people with money to spend and the people paid to serve them while they’re spending it. That is between people who are there to play and people who are there because they have to work for their living. And within this dynamic as it played out on Cafe Wha?’s dance floor, this waitress did not see it as her role to be servile. It was her job to do her job and do it right and the dancers were getting in the way of her doing it. And as far as she was concerned, since they were old enough to know better, they were doing it either because they were careless and thoughtless or because they were frivolous and oblivious. Either way, they were butterflies and she was a honeybee who wasn’t about to put up with their flightiness if it meant she couldn’t get to the flowers to do her job.
I could almost hear her saying what I’m sure she wanted to say as she bore down on yet another oblivious butterfly, “Out of my way, girl. I’ve got tips to earn.”
Stop and go on the Henry Hudson on my way into the city tonight. More stop than go so I had plenty of opportunity and time to study the scenery which, traveling south on the parkway is all off to the right, looking across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Beautiful evening. The walkway busy with walkers, joggers, bikers, sitters on benches and the grass-ers, and stander-arounders. Among the stander-arounders was a man at the water’s edge, cradling his dog in his arms and holding him up to look out over a railing at some ducks riding pieces of driftwood close in to shore. I swear he was talking to the dog, explaining what they were looking at. “See the ducks, Spot? Spot, see the ducks!”
Before the reading. Chairs soon to be occupied by Farran Smith Nehme, Matt Zoller Sietz, Anne Helen Peterson, and James Wolcott who will gather to discuss Farran’s new novel, Missing Reels. Rare Book Room. Third Floor. Strand Bookstore. New York City. Seven p.m. tonight. Wednesday. January 7, 2015.
I have a vague memory of Underdog’s forearm deflating one year, but don’t recall any other balloon disasters this dire:
During one of the first [Macy’s] Thanksgiving Day Parades, organizers thought it would be a good idea to end the festivities by letting go of the ropes and watching the balloons fly away. As they rose into the sky, most of them popped from the air pressure, leaving dozens of children stunned and saddened watching their favorite cartoons blow up in front of them.
This is a photo from the second parade in 1928. Not sure if that’s the parade when the balloons were released and I don’t know who the character in front is. His costume looks a little Arabian Nights-ish so maybe he’s that era’s Aladdin.
By the way, Hendrickson thinks the Aladdin character might have been intended to be the comedian Eddie Cantor. Could be, but I think that changes the date of the photo. Vazquez has it as 1928. Hendrickson says 1934. But Cantor starred in a movie called Ali Babba Goes to Town in 1937.
Tuesday morning. on my way to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Driver of the cab I took from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers couldn’t pull up to the curb along the stretch of Sixth Avenue closest to the corner of 52nd where I asked him to drop me off because of the long line of other cabs parked bumper to bumper that reached halfway to 51st. He got as close as he could, essentially double-parking gunwale to gunwale with another cab. Left me about six inches in which to maneuver myself and my effects---briefcase, cane, a couple of books, a bottle of water---out the door.
I suppose I should have gotten out on the far side but traffic was heavy and I’m not as nimble as I once was. I didn’t think I could make it out before an onrushing car sheared off the open door, taking me with it.
I eased myself out as carefully as I could but I bumped the door as I hoisted myself to my feet and the door bumped the rear door of one of parked cabs.
Bumped is overstating it.
What’s between a bump and a kiss?
Whatever it was it didn’t leave a mark. I checked. Not a dent. Not a ding. Not a nick. Not a scratch. Not any damage at all I could see.
I’m not sure what I’d have done if there had been. Probably shrugged it off. It was a cab in New York City after all. A New York City taxi cab without dents or dings must be as rare as a pirate without an eye patch.
Apparently I found that pirate.
The driver jumped out.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted.
I didn’t point out it was more of a nudge.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted again. He was middle-aged. Neatly dressed in slacks and a zippered cardigan. Distinguished looking. Middle Eastern with closely trimmed snow white hair and a meticulously groomed silver and gray mustache.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I’d have thought a simple but sincere apology would have covered it. There was no damage, I hadn’t done it intentionally, it’s something that happens all the time to everybody. Everybody’s been a door bumpee or door bumper at some point. Multiple points. I elaborated on my apology. “I’m very sorry,” I said.
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” he said. “You bump my cab and that’s all you say? You’re sorry?”
I didn’t know what else to say. Of course it occurred to me that what he wanted me to say was something along the lines of “Here’s ten bucks? Is that sorry enough for you?” But there was something theatrical about his anger. It was like he was playing the part of an irate Middle Eastern cabbie in a movie, one who’d somehow gotten in the way of the hero during a chase. And I wondered if he wanted me to play a part in that movie in his head too, if he wanted me to argue with him, say something more like, “Yeah, I bumped your fucking cab, what about it?” and the drama would take off from there.
I wanted to just walk away. My cab had driven away and I was standing in the street unprotected from oncoming traffic. that might swerve. Drivers might spot a parked cab in time to swerve but might not notice a pedestrian until I rolled off their hood. But I couldn’t decide where to walk to. My driver had left me off a long, painful hobble from the corner and much longer hobble to the front end of the line of parked cabs. The cabs weren’t the only things blocking me from sidewalk. All along Sixth and up 52nd as far as I could see were metal barricades to keep the sidewalks clear around the Sheraton.
A former President was inside. A former Secretary of State too. And their daughter. And dozens of foreign heads of state and foreign and domestic dignitaries. Along with more than a handful of movie stars and other celebrities. The Secret Service was out in force and making their presence felt. In a few minutes, I’d be having a polite but all business encounter with a short,young, squarely built agent with a dark ponytail and SECRET SERVICE stenciled on her kevlar vest who, probably wondering how I’d gotten inside the barricades to begin with let me know with a glare and a wave as swift, strong, compact, and unmistakable in meaning as a karate chop that I was on what she regarded as the wrong side of her street and, cane or no cane, I’d better cross to the other side now.
She would be the second agent I’d have dealings with in a space of five minutes.
The cabbie seemed to take my hesitation as a sign I’d gone up in my lines and, determined to continue the drama and get our big scene restarted, prompted me with my cue again.
“You’re sorry? You go around bumping people’s cars and say you’re sorry. That makes it all right? You’re sorry?”
Suddenly I knew what my next line should be. I wasn’t intentionally playing along. It was just reflex.
“What, you’ve never done it yourself?”
He was ready.
“No! Never! I have never done that!”
“In all your years behind the wheel? Not once?”
“Not once! I know how to be careful.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “You’re amazing. You should write a manual. Tell people your secret.”
I thought that was pretty good. Worth a chuckle from the audience. If we had an audience. Which, it turned out, we did.
Three tall, square-shouldered, square-jawed guys with the names of their agencies on their body armor had ambled up to the barricades.
The third guy actually looked the most intimidating.
They were laughing.
I tried to think of a topper.
The cabbie was quiet but probably not because he was waiting for my comeback so he could top it. I suspect was thinking it might be a good time to cut the scene short. He wasn’t sure he wanted this type of an audience.
Didn’t matter. The guys had decided the show was over. The city cop lowered the curtain, so to speak, by swinging open a section of the barricades. That’s when I saw they hadn’t chosen any old spot from which to watch the comedy play out. They were standing where there was just enough space between the bumpers of two of the parked cabs for me to limp through. They’d come over to help me out.
I made my exit without bowing to take a bow and the cabbie did the same, getting back into his cab to wait for a fare or another, better opportunity to relieve his boredom with some impromptu street theater.
The three guys were grinning merrily as I made my way between the cabs and through the gateway they’d made for me.
“Welcome to New York,” I said and I hope they caught that I wasn’t being sarcastic.
I was grateful to them. I was grateful to the cabbie. They’d made my day by reminding me.
10 AM. New York City. Wish I could walk because I’d much rather have hiked the fifteen or so blocks from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers where the Clinton Global Initiative’s being held instead of cabbing it. Absolutely gorgeous day and even the little bit of it that slipped in through the cab’s open windows is delicious. What I really wish is that I could have walked to Bryant Park and spent the day at a table in the shade there and covered the whole shindig virtually from there. So I was surprised when the young volunteer checking me in at the Sheraton and handing me my press pass said cheerfully, “It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “You’re cold?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I wish we could have summer back!”
Self-doubting and self-effacing singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley standing at the mic center) leads her makeshift band in a guerrilla recording session on a Manhattan rooftop while her self-appointed and previously self-destructive manager and producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo on bass second from right) joins in in John Carney’s romantic comedy Begin Again.
The first shot of Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again is one of the most frightening images of a movie star I’ve ever seen. It’s horrifying and repulsive but irresistible and riveting in the way human wreckage often is.
We’re in a bar. New York City. Somewhere in the Village. Ruffalo---his character, whoever he is---is obviously drunk. And this isn’t that kind of bar. The clientele aren’t here to drink. They’re here to listen. And talk. It’s an open-mic night. We know how those go. But it isn’t just that he’s drunk that marks him as out of place. He’s alone, for one thing. He’s middle-aged for another. Most of the crowd that we can see are in their twenties. He’s a worn-down, beaten-down fortysomething. And he’s a mess. Uncombed, unshaven, probably unwashed. Rumpled head to toe to a degree that says he’s not just had a hard night but a hard year. Or two. Or three. Actually, we find out later, seven. But what really let’s us know he’s an outsider here is that he’s listening to the music.
Like I said, we know how open-mic nights go. The singer songwriter alone on stage with her guitar is struggling to hold the lackadaisically friendly crowd’s drifting attention and losing the struggle. Her problem is she can’t belt it out over the noise of a dozen conversations. She doesn’t have the confidence, in her voice, in her playing, in her song, which she wrote, in herself. We know this about her because we’ve already met her. She doesn’t want to be up there. She had to be practically pushed up onto the stage. But this guy is all attention.
He stands there, his bleary eyes wide-open and as round as pie plates, his scruffy cheeks stretched by a grin of maniacal idiocy.
If she could see him past the spotlights she’d be terrified.
If we didn’t know and thought this was a different kind of movie we’d be worried for her.
But then the story jumps back in time to that morning and we begin to follow him through his awful and increasingly self-destructive day---since he’s been on a downward slide for a while he doesn’t have much of a self left to destruct, what we’re watching is him at the his rope with his grip beginning to slip---and we see him throw away what’s left of his career, further alienate his already alienated teenage daughter, show us why his marriage failed, and wander aimlessly at last into this bar, bringing us right back to where we met him, presenting us with the same image as we began with, only now we know what’s causing that awful grin.
It’s not mania.
It’s not idiocy, it’s bliss.
And now that we know what’s behind it, it’s not awful anymore.
I’ll have to go back and rewatch when it comes out on DVD to see if Ruffalo and director John Carney are playing games here and they shot the scene over making subtle changes or if they’re being clever in another way, knowing that context is everything and our now knowing that context or thinking we know it will change our perceptions. Either way, it’s a neat trick.
The guy is listening. Intently. Sympathetically. Appreciatively. But not just to what’s on stage. He’s also hearing what could be up there. And we get to listen with him. And we know what he knows. She’s good. She could be a lot better. She will be a lot better, if he has anything to do with it, because we know something else now too, he’s good at what he does too. Well, was good. But he will be good again. He’s grinning like he is because he knows that. He hears it. He’s listening to the sound of his redemption.
Hers too, as it turns out.
I’m going to stop here for some liner notes on spoiler alerts.
I try very hard not to give too much away in movie reviews. Some things I just don’t mention or at least I don’t go into detail mentioning. Surprise twists, endings, important characters’ ultimate fates, visual and technical effects that are better seen than read about. But some things can’t be written about without giving away plot points and those things are often what’s good (or bad) about a movie and the reason I liked it (or didn’t) and think you would (like it or not like it) too. And that’s the case with Begin Again. I haven’t been able to think of how talk about everything that’s good about it (and there’s a lot) without giving things away. This is especially true of Kiera Knightley’s character and her performance, which are the heart of the movie.
So you might want to stop reading here because, you know, spoilers.
Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan---golfers will get the joke in his last name---a record producer, once one of the most successful indie producers in the business. He had a gift for discovering and nurturing new talent. He heard things others missed. But it’s been a long time since he’s had a success. Probably because he’s been listening with only half an inner ear for years, as he’s been paying more attention to the noises made by his self-pity. His now ex-wife broke his heart and he let that break his spirit. But without warning, he’s finally heard something promising again. Knightley.
Knightley plays Gretta, the diffident and reluctant singer songwriter, and after Ruffalo introduces himself and makes his pitch to take her under his wing and guide her to stardom, the story jumps back in time again, and we follow her path to this bar, which began several months before, mostly happy months for her, well, apparently happy, although today’s been a very bad day, and we learn how she got here.
She was dragged by her best friend, another singer songwriter, who hoped it would distract her from her grief over her break-up with her boyfriend, yet another singer-songwriter, although a much more successful one. In fact, he’s just had his big break and is on his way to a level of stardom even higher than the one Mulligan’s promising Gretta.
This is the sob story we might expect we’re being set up for. There’s an note of self-destructiveness in Gretta too.
She wasn’t being overshadowed by her boyfriend’s talent. She was hiding her own behind it. And we see that she was in the process of using his success as an excuse to erase all trace of herself as a musician, an artist, and even a person in her own right.
Reluctantly, doubtfully, but with a burst of determination brought on by anger that surprises her, and after Googling him to make sure he’s not just the drunken, maniacal idiot he appears to be, Gretta accepts Dan’s offer and he gets right to work the next day.
He takes her to see his former partner Saul (played with a soft-spoken wariness by Mos Def, again appearing under his real Yasiin Bey). That doesn’t work out. Saul can’t hear what Dan hears and he no longer trusts Dan’s ear.
Without money to rent a studio, Dan gets the idea to record Gretta wherever they can find a space to set up. On the street if they have to. The idea carries them away. They’ll do it on the street, in an alley, on a rooftop, on a subway platform, in the rowboats on the lake in Central Park, under the arch in Washington Square Park. They’ll record her live and work into the final mix whatever background noise the mics pick up. The voices of the city will sing harmony. The music of its streets, parks, and subways will provide backup. The album will be a musical portrait of New York!
It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!
Of course it does work. We know it will work. We’re told flat out it’s going to work when Gretta mentions a Judy Garland movie. Not Wizard of Oz and not A Star Is Born. One of her “Let’s Put on a Show!” movies of the kind she routinely did with Mickey Rooney. Begin Again is that kind of movie.
With a happy ending practically guaranteed, the suspense is in how that happy ending will come about and in discovering exactly what happy will mean for Gretta and Dan.
Director John Carney, who also wrote the script, uses what we know based on the conventions of romantic comedies is going to happen to set up expectations in order to surprise us by not meeting those expectations or meeting them in eccentric and roundabout ways.
Example: Convention sets up to expect that Gretta’s the real talent and her ex-boyfriend, Dave Kohl, a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder, if not a downright phony. She is talented. But he’s a star. Not just a major talent, either. An artist. One who knows how to incorporate his audience and their expectations into his performances. He doesn’t manipulate them or play up to them (or down to them). He works with them. His art, his music, is collaborative in more than the usual way. Gretta doesn’t learn she’s as good as him, never mind better. She simply learns she’s an artist in her own way and that she has responsibilities to herself because of that, which, by the way, doesn’t exempt her from responsibilities to her other people.
One of those people is Kohl. Another is Dan.
This is how it goes throughout. We know what’s going to happen and then it turns out we didn’t know or didn’t quite know it. Characters get some of what they want, more of what they need, it just turns out, as the writer George V. Higgins said about how happy endings turn often turn out in life, it just doesn’t look like what they expected. Or what we expected for them.
We know Gretta and Dan will get their album made. We know it’ll be a success. We know Gretta will blossom as an artist. We know Dan will sober up and get his act together. We know Dan and his daughter Violet will work things out and we know know Gretta will be the agent (angel) of their reconciliation. We know Dan and Gretta’s partnership will turn into friendship which will turn into…
…a conflict with something else we know, which is that Dan and his ex-wife Miriam will start making moves towards getting back together.
Dan and Gretta and Dan and Miriam both can’t end happily!
We know we’re supposed to root for Gretta but we can’t help rooting for Miriam too, especially since she’s played by Catherine Keener whose career practically exists for directors who need someone immediately sympathetic and whom we root for even she’s in the wrong, as Miriam is and isn’t here.
This conflict of rooting interests makes us lose track of what we really should be rooting for. That’s a good thing, in case I’m not being clear.
This is the first time I’ve seen Knightley play an ordinary human being coping with ordinary problems. She’s in love, but it’s not a grand romance. She’s torn between two men, but her dilemma’s not even potentially tragic. And there are no pirates.
By ordinary I mean a type we could run into any and every day, have run into many times, in my case, a not all that rare breed of young artiste with talent and intelligence and without ego and vanity whose only ambition is to be able to do what she does well the way she wants to do it. Gretta is not a star in the making or in her own head. Which isn’t to say she’s fine with the way she is. Her problem is she’s too accepting of what she’s let herself become, which is a little too ordinary. Knightley conveys this with the way she slouches inside her dowdy outfits of shapeless gingham dresses and baggy tops worn over torn jeans with flat-soled sandals and slip-ons. This is someone who hit on a style in college and has stuck with it because it’s easy and because it accomplishes what she needs it to, make her not quite invisible but easy to overlook.
But there’s something about the angularity of her carriage---she’s all elbows and knees---and the set of her face that tells us that what we know from movie conventions, that she’ll clean up nice, won’t have the effect those conventions might be leading us to expect. Dress her up, pin her hair back, hand her a lipstick and she’ll turn out to be…not Keira Knightley. She’ll still be Gretta, an ordinarily attractive young woman who’s learned a few style tips that don’t really matter to her.
What matters to her is her songwriting and her music. To convey that, Knightley had to learn how to sing and play the guitar. I can’t tell you if how well she learned to play. Her fingers look to be doing the right things but who knows how things got fixed up in the sound studio. Same with her singing, but it sounds to me as if the sound engineers left her voice sounding as close to natural as they could, and that leaves her sounding like what she is, someone who can sing well enough to please a crowd in a club or in a small hall and even sell albums but who’s really singing to the stars who she hopes will cover her songs to give them an idea of how they should sing them.
Knightley’s best talent as an actress is her knowing how to employ that great, wonderful, screen-eating smile of hers. In Anna Karenina part of the horror was in watching that smile grow brittle and then desperate and then fade. In Begin Again, it doesn’t exactly do the opposite, it doesn’t need to return because it’s not gone away. But it takes time for it to regain its full force and for Gretta to let go and stop shutting it down whenever she feels it beaming on too long.
But there’s a whole lot more happening on her face besides the smile. Gretta, secure in her belief that she’s almost never the focus of anyone’s attention, feels free to let every thing she feels and thinks show.
Here’s one of those spoilers. In a scene late in the movie, Gretta goes to see Dave perform in concert for the first time since their break up and his rise to stardom. He wants her to take him back, as we knew from the first he would, and she’s exacted a promise from him, as a test of whether or not he deserves it, to perform one of the songs they wrote together her preferred way despite his fans’ love of his arrangement. And at first he seems to be passing the test. All at once, though, he gives in to the wishes of the crowd who want to sing and dance along to the song as they know it.
And the succession of expressions that cross her face---melting adoration, at first, then shock as he switches from doing the song her way to his, then hurt, then anger, then sardonic amusement, then realization, then acceptance, then understanding, appreciation, and a new but unromantic affection---is a delight.
My favorite of these expressive moments, though, occurs when she and Dan are on the subway listening to the songs on his playlist on his smart phone. All at once she surprises him and herself by shimmying her shoulders to the music. It’s sexy and Knightley shows us that Gretta knows it’s sexy and is enjoying feeling sexy but then can’t continue to enjoy it because she’s enjoying something else, laughing at herself over it all. And there’s that smile.
Ruffalo plays Dan as somewhat the opposite of the wayward brother he played in You Can Count on Me. In that movie his character was someone you knew you couldn’t count on who managed to charm you into counting on him anyway. In Begin Again, Dan is someone you feel you ought to be able to count on but is determined to prove you’d be wrong to do it.
In You Can Count On Me, he had to be charming enough that we understood why people counted on him despite themselves. In Begin Again, he has to be charming enough that we can see why the very few people who still count on him aren’t out of their minds but not so charming we forget why everybody else thinks they know better.
Ruffolo makes Dan a battered, ragged, popped-seamed, stuffing-leaking, buttons-missing teddy bear of a man, the kind of teddy bear who appears not worth repairing but you keep around for sentimentality’s sake. Dan puts himself back together stitch by stitch but the fun of it is that we don’t actually see the mending. Ruffalo just has Dan looking and acting a little bit better each time he reappears. With each new scene we think “Something’s different” and then Ruffalo makes us have to look for what that is.
As Dan’s half-heartedly rebellious teenage daughter, Violet, Hailee Steinfeld, who earned an Academy Award nomination playing Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, shows she wasn’t herself a one-hit wonder. She’s clearly working on growing as an actress and like Gretta doesn’t seem to be concerned with stardom but with being good at what she does and continuing to do it. Her character is more than conventional, it’s a cliche, but her performance is marked by interesting and intelligent touches that mark Violet as herself and Steinfeld as what she’s said she wants to be in the future, a writer and director.
As Miriam, Dan’s exasperated ex-wife and Violet’s worried mother, Keener does what she does best, evince the world-weary resignedness of an intelligent, resourceful, and once happier woman who has some of the stuffing knocked out of by life but has mostly gotten over it and long since decided she’s not going to choose between hope and despair and just deal with things as they come.
Rap star CeLo Green plays a big-hearted angel of a rap star named Troublegum, one of Dan’s discoveries from way back when who has not forgotten all he owes him and to whom it doesn’t matter whether or not Dan can be counted on anymore. He simply loves Dan for the good he did him and believes that when you love someone you are always looking out for them. Rob Morrow shows up for a brief but wicked cameo as a music company executive in yellow-tinted glasses whose seductive smile and jovial declarations of love for anyone who amuses him (and promises to make him money) lets us know he’s the devil. Bey---Mos Def---plays another kind of devil, an underminer and a planter and exploiter of doubt.
As Dave Kohl, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine acts at least as well as he sings, convincing off the stage as on playing a basically decent guy who’s being a jerk and is tempted to become an even bigger jerk but who isn’t at heart a jerk and doesn’t want to be one. And as Gretta’s best friend Steve, a fellow singer and songwriter, James Corden is cast as the type of open-hearted, eager to please nice guy convention lets us know has a secret sorrow and is destined for heartbreak he’ll suffer with puppy dog eyes and a mournful smile of acceptance that he then doesn’t play. Doesn’t have to play. Steve is a happy guy having fun being what he is a young artist in New York lucky enough to be able to do what he likes to do and that makes Corden’s scenes some of the most fun scenes in the movie.
Final verse. Along with everything else, Begin Again is what Gretta’s album is meant to be, a loving portrait of New York City set to music. And while I can say that the portrait of New York is recognizable and loveable, I don’t have Dan’s ear and can’t tell you if the music is truly good. What I can tell you is that I liked it and all the songs Gretta is supposed to have written sound like they could have been written by her. And that’s probably as important because, when the show’s over and the band’s packed up and left the stage, Begin Again is Gretta’s story, the story of a music industry Cinderella who becomes her own fairy godmother and fairy godmother to others, and it’s her music that gives her the strength and the ability to do it.
Begin Again, written and directed by John Carney. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, CeLo Green, and Rob Morrow. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Off to the big city for the presentations of the 2014 Hillman Prizes for Journalism. I’ll be tweeting from my seat in the front row at the New York Times Center, maybe even doing a little live-blogging starting around 6 PM. You can follow along on Twitter by checking in at #hillman2014 or jumping into my feed or you just sit right here and watch the action unfold in the Twitter widget over in the left-hand sidebar.
Lecherous miser, saucy maid, wily servant, impecunious nephew, sweet young thing: Paxton Whitehead, Claire Karpen, Carson Elrod, Dave Quay, and Amelia Pedlow scheme, connive, and rhyme their way through The Heir Apparent, David Ives’ faithful in its own very funny fashion adaptation of an Eighteenth Century French farce, now enjoying an exuberant run at Classic Stage Company.
Who was it said, “The French are funny, sex is funny, comedy is funny, and yet no French sex comedies are funny”?
Probably somebody trying to be funny.
Also somebody who hadn’t yet seen Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Heir Apparent. Which is French. Technically. Which is about sex. Some of the time. Which is a comedy. Definitely. Which is funny. Very.
The Heir Apparent is the brilliant 21st Century American playwright David Ives’ word-happy, rhyme-crazy, mind-bending, head-spinning, tongue-twisting, joke-quip-gag-and pun-juggling adaptation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s early 18th Century French farce Le Legataire Universal about the impecunious nephew---Is there any other kind?---of a lecherous old miser---What else would he be?---in love with the sweet young daughter---Naturalment!---of a domineering and avaricious widow---You were expecting kind-hearted and charitable?---who with the help of his wily servant---You saw that wily coming a kilometer away, didn’t you?---must trick his uncle into making him the sole beneficiary of his will so that the domineering widow will consent to his marrying her sweet, young daughter.
And then there’s a lawyer…
Directed by John Rondo, whom I imagine running rehearsals drawing X’s, arrows, and O’s on a whiteboard, The Heir Apparent scores laughs from every corner of the CSC’s thrust stage. There’s much breaking of the fourth wall. Jokes are pulled in from wherever they can be found even if Ives has to reach all the way from 1702 to 2014 to get them. The play references itself and critiques itself as it bounds merrily along. From time to time the characters seem to become vaguely aware they aren’t speaking French and start listening in bafflement at what’s coming out of their mouths. Other times they appear to be on the verge of realizing they’re characters in a play, which while mildly confusing them for a moment, doesn’t upset them. Au contraire. It gives them renewed energy and confidence to proceed full-tilt in their absurdities. And all of this is dealt out in rhymed couplets.
The physically nimble, verbally gymnastic cast is led by a rumbling, grumbling Paxton Whitehead as the miserly uncle, Geronte, and Carson Elrod as the increasingly carried away by his own wily genius wily servant Crispin.
Crispin, as afflicted by a meta-consciousness as any literary construct whose creator has endowed with the ability to read himself, appears to know that as a wily servant in a comedy his job is to cause and increase confusion as the best method for bringing about harmony, understanding, and general happily-ever-aftering. Reassured by the trope, he’s confident that any crazy idea that pops into his head must be a good idea even if it strikes him as crazy. He also knows that it’s in the Wily Servant job description that wily servants have to adopt and drop multiple disguises at a moment’s notice. Again, faith in the trope saves him by assuring him that any disguise he adopts will fool whomever it needs to fool, no matter how obvious and outrageous. In fact, the more obvious and outrageous the more effective the disguise.
With his beady eyes transfixed as if stunned by what he’s just gotten away with and half-amazed and half-terrified by what he’s about to try next, Elrod’s Crispin carries off his schemes and impostures with brio and panache if not aplomb.
Meanwhile, the target of Crispin’s scheming, Whitehead’s Geronte is not a monster of greed and selfishness. He’s more like a big baby with a baby’s idea of how world is meant to work---it’s all organized to take care of his needs---and a baby’s concept of mine. He’s not being mean about it when he fails to consider his nephew’s and servants’ needs and feelings. He’s just oblivious to the fact that they have needs and feelings that aren’t in complete agreement with his own.
Plus, he’s preoccupied.
Geronte has a tricky digestive tract that demands constant monitoring and regulation. Much of his conversation in the early going involves graphic descriptions of the current state of his personal plumbing.
You haven’t heard scatological humor until you’ve heard it rhymed.
But he’s not so preoccupied he doesn’t recognize he has other bodily functions. Geronte has a lecherous side. But when he decides, apparently on a whim of the moment, to complicate things for his nephew even further by declaring his intention to marry girl himself---today! at two!---it’s not a sure bet either way which he’s the more desirous of acquiring with the match, a frisky and nubile young wife or a combination nurse and laundress on call 24/7.
This is a comedy, comedy is transformative, and Geronte needs transforming. Whitehead takes Geronte through four revisions of himself, including, for one scene of Marx Brothers-worthy hilarity, a temporarily zombiefied version, in which he staggers back from a presumed death to interrupt Crispin in the middle of another imposture, that of Geronte himself, and the two enact an homage to Groucho and Harpo’s mirror scene in Duck Soup.
As parasitical nephews go, Dave Quay's Eraste is one of the most amiable, affable, and considerate ones going. He even manages some sincere affection for his uncle, repugnant and selfish as the old fool can be. Although he's straight-forward in admitting aspects of his life would improve greatly if the old man would just drop off the twig and Geronte makes it hard not to look forward impatiently to that event, he doesn't actually wish his uncle would die. Well, not all the time. He doesn't need Geronte's money right away. He just needs to be named in the will right now. Fortunately, he can rely on his trusty valet Crispin. Fortunately, as well, Eraste has wiles of his own. While Crispin switches madly from imposture to imposture, Eraste's job is to keep his uncle distracted, his (he hopes) future mother-in-law placated, and his beloved reassured that he loves her, is not about to see her married off to his repulsive uncle, and will get that will written and signed---his beloved is no fool and knows where her interests lie. Quay brings it off with wit, intelligence, charm, and only a hint of madness born of panic and desperation.
Amelia Pedlow plays Isabelle as a sweet young thing but a remarkably level-headed sweet young thing. Practical in matters of love, sex and money, clear-eyed about the way her marital interests depend on Eraste's financial scheming, and, a good helpmeet in the making, capable of jumping right in to connive right along with Crispin and Eraste and contribute a few mad ideas of her own.
Pragmatic and fiscally self-interested a couple as they are, Isabelle and Eraste have a vibrant romantic streak that comes out when one or the other of them remembers they're French. Then everything comes to a stop as, with the cooperation of the lighting and music, they leave the play for a moment and take their places for their close up in a New Wave film in which, locked in melodramatic embrace, they exchange passionate endearments...in French of course. Then it's quickly back to business.
Clare Karpen as Geronte’s maid and Crispin’s beloved, Lisette, and Suzanne Bertish as Madame Argante, Isabelle’s coolly cynical and calculating mother, keep the other characters and the play from spinning off into complete madness with their contrasting examples of practicality.
Lisette, who has Geronte under her control thanks to her buxom figure and skill with an enema bag, knows she’s at her most alluring when she’s being most practical. As someone whose job in life is cleaning up other people’s messes, she’s developed a knack for anticipating messes before they happen and if not always able to prevent them then to be right there to mop up, a knack that makes her the perfect partner for a wily but not always careful servant like Crispin.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Ickenham once shuddered at the memory of an aunt who with one withering glance through her lorgnette could knock the stuffing out of meddlesome policemen who forgot their place. Madame Argante doesn’t trifle about with lorgnettes. What she brings to bear is a beguilingly wolfish smile guaranteed to shrivel the heart of the boldest suitor of her daughter.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a lawyer?
David Pittu plays the dimunitive attorney called in to write Geronte’s will, Scruple, who unlike most stage lawyers actually has one, even two. Scruples, that is. He also has an extremely nervous disposition, a fragile vanity, an understanable sensitivity about his height, and a paranoid tendency to think that everything anyone says or does that he doesn’t immediately understand is intended to insult, humiliate, confuse, and cozen him. He happens to be right, in this case, but it’s nothing personal. It’s hilarious watching Pittu, who enters tightly wound, wind himself tighter and tighter as he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity as the apparent lunatics running this asylum work him into their mad schemes and counter-schemes.
But the real star of the show is the playwright. Ives’ dialog is written in a knowing, colloquial American English that somehow still sounds convincingly in period. It’s wackily allusive, craftily metaphorical, full of casually tossed off anachronisms, and, as I mentioned, all carefully metered and rhymed. In some cases the rhymes themselves are the joke. In others it’s their naturalness that amazes. In all cases, Ives’ comic genius is a cause for wonder and applause.
I’ve been to comedies before where I was afraid to laugh in case I missed the next joke. But I never saw one before this that made me want to stand up and cheer for a near-rhyme.
The Heir Apparent, by David Ives, adapted from the play by John-Francois Regnard. Directed by John Lando. Set design by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David C. Woolard, and lighting by Japhy Weideman. With Suzanne Bertish, Carson Elrod, Claire Karpen, Amelia Pedlow, David Pittu, Dave Quay, and Paxton Whitehead.
Lots to lament and deplore in this series of pictures showing various storefronts around Manhattan as they were ten years ago and as they are now, especially in the lower sets of photographs which are records of decline and decay and not gentrification. But up higher it’s not all lamentable and deplorable. It’s a good thing when failing and failed businesses are replaced with going concerns, even if the going concern is a Subway franchise. But of course it’s not good when a going concern makes way for nothing in the way of an improvement because the rent’s gotten too damn high or the changes in the neighborhood have driven away the clientele. I don’t get down to the city often enough to see what’s going on for myself. My sentimental bias has me thinking the world needs more bars like McHale’s than restaurants like Satya, but I never drank at the one and haven’t eaten at the other, so what do I know?
What got me in this one and in others and something I’ve noticed on some blocks when I’ve walked around is the disappearance of red brick and its replacement by metal---steel, aluminum, chrome---all of it with the shine, welcoming warmth, and visual appeal of polished tin.
I don’t know what the architects are thinking. I imagine the business owners are thinking, Just give me something that’s easy to hose down. But it appears as if the architects think people want to live, work, and play in an environment with a minimum of visual and tactile interest and a maximum of sterility and self-containment, as if sealed in against germs and spoilage. That is, inside a can.