Saturday, January 9, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

Joy and Sweet Sorrow

By Steve Herte

New Year's Day falling on a Friday this year had me rapidly thinking of what to do with my Dinner and a Movie night. Moving it to Thursday put it on New Year's Eve! Yikes! That's the one day of the year – aside from Mother's Day – that restaurants are unavailable unless you reserve early. Add that to my yearly tradition of dining at City Hall every year's end. I decided to see what movies were available downtown and, fortunately, there were three I could choose from. They were also all about the same time length and started at approximately the same time.

Using my database of restaurants, I made reservations for two people because Betty has never been to City Hall and I thought she might enjoy it. After that, it just took a few consultations with friends to decide on a movie. For those who may be interested, the other two were Point Break and Sisters. Enjoy!

Joy (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: David O. Russell. Writers: David O. Russell (story & s/p) and Annie Mumolo (story). Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Bernard, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Ken Howard, Ray De La Paz, Alexander Cook, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Tomas Elizondo, & Zeke Elizondo. Color, Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.

Knowing a little about the story in this movie and knowing how reliable the actors in the cast are, I chose to see it, wondering where that story would take me. I can only compare the beginning to a baby’s first steps: Pull yourself up on something, let go, fall down, laugh. Repeat, until a few steps are accomplished and you’re safely in Mommy’s arms. Though this might be exciting to the new parents, I nearly drifted off into sleep in the first half hour of Joy.

Then the film began to pick up speed. Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, an inventor and designer since she was a girl (Crovetti-Cramp). Her biggest source of encouragement is her grandmother, Mimi (Ladd), who also narrates the story. Her father Rudy (De Niro) owns and runs a failing auto repair shop with her half-sister Peggy (Rohm). Rudy is divorced from Joy’s mother Terry (Madsen) who now does nothing but stay in bed watching her favorite soap opera.

Joy is also divorced from her husband Tony (Ramirez) who is currently living in her basement practicing his craft as a lounge singer. She has two children, Christie (Gadsby sisters) and Tommy (Elizondo brothers). Her best friend from childhood, Jackie (Polanco), helps out whenever she can. Jackie, like Mimi, believes in Joy and her dreams of a better life. Joy works as a booking clerk for Eastern Airlines and is just about keeping her head above water financially. The stresses caused by a full house get worse when Rudy shows up at her door after being thrown out by his current wife. He moves into the basement where he’s constantly arguing with Tony. And whenever he’s upstairs, he’s arguing with Terry.

Joy visits Rudy at work and finds him on the phone to a dating service. When he learns the woman’s name is Trudy (Rossellini), they agree to meet and a love affair blossoms. Trudy is a wealthy Italian widow with a 55-foot sailboat, and she invites Rudy and his family for a winter sail. The only condition: no red wine! It will stain the genuine teak wood deck. Of course, Tony, who was not invited, brings red wine and charms his way on board. You know what comes next. The boat rocks, people fall, glasses of red wine are spilled and broken on the deck, and Joy winds up cleaning up the mess alone.

If this sounds like a version of Cinderella, it very much is. The stepsister isn’t wicked. She’s an over-achiever who thinks Joy is a loser and embarrasses her whenever she can and doesn’t care who is present when she does so. While mopping up the wine and broken glass (by hand), Joy cuts both her hands. This starts her inventive mind going and she creates the first self-wringing mop with a removable, washable head made from 300 feet of continuous cotton. But how to market this idea?

It isn’t easy. Convincing Trudy to get her started with $20,000, she make a deal with a company in California to manufacture the parts. It involves a “royalty” fee that is paid to a Texas magnate unbeknownst to Joy. When the company raises the interest rates, Joy refuses to pay the unjust fees because it will raise the cost of the product. She needs an advertising medium. Tony, who was never too good at being a husband, becomes her best adviser and talks into meeting QVC executive Neil Walker (Cooper) who runs a small television network where famous people sell new inventions.

Joy is agog when she watches the orders literally flow in when Priscilla (Mills) and Joan Rivers (Rivers) enthusiastically advertise a perfectly ordinary necklace. Neil puts his “best salesman” on the job of promoting Joy’s mop but he fails miserably when he cannot figure out how to work the wringer part. Joy is devastated as she watches him flail and is cut from the scene to another product. Her family, who are also watching, are not a big help.

Joy, however, is undeterred. She storms into Neil’s office and convinces him to let her sell her own mop on his show. Onstage, however, it’s a different world. Joy freezes in the bright lights. If it weren’t for Jackie calling in to the station, it would have been a total disaster. Instead, it’s an overnight success. Now, all she has to deal with are the shadowy dealings in California and Texas. But as Cinderella went from scullery girl to princess, Joy transforms from harried housewife into business mogul.

Joy is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense of the word. All is bad in the beginning and seems to get worse and worse but gloriously converts to happiness in the end. She gains the strength to tell Tony and Rudy to move out and live their own lives. She hires a plumber, Toussaint (Jean-Louis), to fix the constant hair clogs caused by her mother, and Terry falls in love with him. Mimi dies, but she gets to tell of the future success and happiness of her visionary granddaughter.

In the course of the movie there are several flashbacks to the past to accent Joy’s dilemma with her severely dysfunctional family. There are also scenes where the soap opera characters, Danica (Lucci), Clarinda (Wright), and Bartholomew (Cook), appear to become a part of poor Joy’s difficult life.

Though it started slowly, Joy approached the “Wow” factor and was entertaining and enjoyable. Jennifer Lawrence was a rainbow of various emotions and she played them well. Robert De Niro was, well, Robert De Niro. Bradley Cooper was convincing as the accomplished executive businessman who knew what he was getting into but still wanted to be friends when he and Joy became rivals. There is only a few mild vulgarities. Otherwise, Joy is a good, clean, well photographed, based on a true story, film for adults.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

City Hall
131 Duane St. (between Church Street and West Broadway)New York

I have made it a personal tradition to finish a year with a return to my favorite restaurant in Manhattan and start the New Year with my all-time favorite in Brooklyn. They’re the only two restaurants I visit repeatedly and regularly. But this year is different.

When I arrived at the arched windowed, colonnaded façade of the 1863 Landmark cast-iron building (once, the Lester Pinkus Shoe Corporation) I sighed. It’s always like coming home at City Hall. The hostess at the Captain’s Station greeted me with a smile as I announced my reservation.

Then she led me to a table halfway between the semi-circular booths and the tables lining the hallway before the kitchen. As I started to sit I heard my name called. My friend Betty was not only there before me, but was sitting a table away sipping the Kir Royale (champagne and cassis) I suggested she order. The wine list was waiting on the table as we discussed how the hostess didn’t know we were both a part of the same reservation.

Soon, our server, Cristian arrived and took my martini order. He presented us with the single-page menu and left to get the drink. I remarked how the menu has shrunk from book-size. When he returned, Cristian explained that the restaurant was running out of many standard items, but he assured us that everything on the card was available. We studied the appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and sides until we came up with two three-course meals. Betty asked if I wanted to share a side dish. I knew exactly what I wanted to share, but it wasn’t on the card.

At that moment, Chef Henry Meer walked the corridor behind our table and I greeted him. He smiled in his usual way and welcomed us both, asking if we had any questions on the menu. “Yes,” I said, “Where are the Curried Onion Rings?” A quick turn to the kitchen and a moment later, he turned back to us and assured us they were available, but that we had to ask for them. That gained me a thank-you from the couple at the next table, who were also hooked on the fabulous side dish. I thanked the Chef and we ordered our meals with Cristian.

The first choice on the menu was a jumbo shrimp or crab cocktail and Betty chose the shrimp. These were surprisingly large, fresh and on a bed of ice with a slice of lemon, horseradish catsup, and a tartar dipping sauce. I ordered the half-dozen hama hama oysters from Washington State because I prefer West Coast oysters to East Coast. They were not briny, a little sweet and with none of that metallic taste some oysters have. We both enjoyed them.

The next course for Betty was the yellow split pea soup served with a twisted bread stick straddling the bowl. It was hot and delicious and not as heavy as green pea soup. My choice was grilled portobello mushrooms with baby arugula and parmesan cheese in aged balsamic and white truffle oil. I’ve had this dish before at City Hall and it’s always satisfying. The meaty mushrooms taste great with a sprig of arugula in that light vinegary sauce.

Betty was still working through her Kir when I ordered a glass of zinfandel for myself. City Hall is one of very few restaurants in New York that serve red zinfandel by the glass. Chef Meer is excellent at choosing the best vintages and this was no exception. It was full-bodied, deep red and had an authoritative after-taste.

The lady’s choice of main course was Mediterranean branzino with a dijon-hollandaise sauce. She had a choice of having the whole fish or a filet. I’ve never seen a whole branzino but have been impressed by the size of their steak-like filets. She chose the latter. It was served simply with beautiful grill stripes on top and was flaky and tender. The sauce was served in a separate ramekin. 

On the Chef’s recommendation, I chose the homemade cavatelli with New Zealand green-lipped mussels and shrimp. Along with lasagna, angel hair, tortellini, and pappardelle, cavatelli is among my top favorite pastas and City Hall makes them al dente, and so rich you can taste the cheese in them. The mussels and shrimp were, as all seafood before this dish very fresh and tasty. Betty was impressed with the basket of curried onion rings, and between the two of us, it was finished. Usually, I have to take half of it home – they even taste good re-heated.

One would think with all that food there would be no room for dessert but, hey, it was New Year’s Eve, and we were both ready. To get the best of both worlds we ordered the warm guanaja chocolate soufflé cake with caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce and the City Hall cheesecake “Voted Best Cheesecake in NY” (you know how I react to a boast). Both were excellent. The chocolate cake was rich with dark chocolate and matching sauce but at the same time it was light and fluffy. The cheesecake was like eating a cloud (sorry Junior’s) and was closest to my benchmark cheesecake, the one once made by Longchamps restaurant long ago.

A cappuccino for her (with a heart shape swirled into the cream on top) and a double espresso for me, and our New Year’s celebration was almost done. City Hall opened in November of 1998 and this night would be its last night. I had heard rumors of this shocking turn of events but they proved true. I didn’t want to leave. I ordered one last glass of cognac to toast the Chef with and wish him a good future wherever he goes. Chef Meer is a veteran from the famed Lutèce and La Cote Basque. I’m sure he will succeed in whatever he chooses to do.

Before we left, I asked Chef if he would be in a photograph with us and he enthusiastically agreed. Upon exiting City Hall I realized that this would be the last time I would see the familiar hashtag logo of interwoven C and H, and sighed.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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