Thursday, October 27, 2016

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Keeping Up With The Joneses (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Director: Greg Mottle. Writer: Michael LeSieur. Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Patton Oswald, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, & Yi Dong Hian. Color, Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.

Jeff Gaffney (Galifianakis) lives in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and works as a personnel relations manager for MBI Company. He and his wife Karen (Fisher), a home decorator, live in a charming house on a cul-de-sac. The day-to-day life includes cleaning up after Dan Craverston’s (Walsh) twin bulldogs. Dan is a rocket scientist who also works at MBI. The Gaffneys have just waved goodbye to their two sons as they're bussed away to summer camp. Coming home, they meet Dan’s wife, Meg (Monroe), a real estate agent, who has just sold the last property in the neighborhood for all cash. Karen wonders who would buy a house without using credit or putting a down payment on it. Her curiosity keeps her by the window until the new occupants arrive.

Tim (Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gadot) are not only the most attractive couple to move in, they’re absolutely perfect. They’re worldly, he speaks fluent Chinese, he can blow glass, she raises funds for orphaned children in Sri Lanka, speaks Israeli and cooks like a professional chef. Inviting them over for coffee, the Gaffneys receive an elaborate glass sculpture from the Joneses, which proves to have a bugging device inside – Jeff’s boss, Carl Pronger (Dunn) authenticates it. Karen is sure there’s something strange about the Joneses.

Knowing the Joneses would be out for the evening, Karen drags Jeff to their house, using the spare garage door opener to get in. All seems too perfect until they go upstairs and find the computer room with MBI company ID badges displayed on the monitors for all the technical employees and Jeff. Now she’s sure. But Jeff picks up a silver retractable pen and unwittingly shoots his wife with a sedative dart. Switching between carrying and dragging her, Jeff manages to get her out of the house just as the Joneses arrive home.

The fun continues when Karen’s suspicious sleuthing involves her and Jeff in a gun battle between Tim and Natalie and the henchmen of Scorpion (Oswalt), the real bad guys. Jeff’s and Karen’s ordinary, safe life changes forever. In the process, Jeff dines at a snake restaurant run by Yang (Liu), a good friend of Tim’s and Karen, and learns the meaning of provocative lingerie from Natalie.

The comedy in Keeping Up with the Joneses is sophisticated and subtle with a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. There are no laughfests, which is good. The sound effects crew supply exaggerated sounds that make the audience wince when Jeff hits Karen’s head on a door-jamb while trying to hurry her out of their neighbors’ house. Then there’s the ridiculous situation of Jeff’s well-dressed boss living out of his van after a divorce. Absurdity, and funny. Add to that, Scorpion’s girlfriend’s (Zhao) reaction when Jeff recognizes him and reveals his true name. Very smooth humor.

Zach Galifianakis plays the role of the insouciant believer in talking things out almost to the point of being annoying but it works. Isla Fisher is great as the nosy neighbor who never realizes that a professional spy would instantly catch her following wearing a lame disguise. I would be shocked if Jon Hamm was not or is not tapped to be the next James Bond. He would fit the role elegantly. And Gal Gadot is drop-dead gorgeous in everything she wears, no matter how little. I can’t wait for her sequel to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as Wonder Woman, now in post-production.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is a unique comedy with a great concept. I enjoyed it. It entertained me without using vulgarity, nudity or sex, just sly, clever, and sometimes subtle humor. My favorite quote (from Tim to Jeff), “You tried to jump through a triple-paned window without breaking it first?”

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Chimichurri Grill
609 9thAve., New York

I have learned over the years that whenever I think I’ve seen or heard the strangest things, there’s always something stranger waiting around the corner. When I received my confirmation call (I thought) from Chimichurri Grill, imagine my surprise at being told that they do not accept reservations for solo diners! Gee, I just made one. This is the first time I’ve ever been instructed that I would have to sit at the bar for dinner. Then, if a table opened up (maybe), I could have it. I was ready to change reservations as the bar stools at this place are back-breaking, flat-seated, backless stools. The excuse I was given was that there is usually a Broadway show crowd occupying all the tables for two. Still having misgivings, I accepted the bar-to-table possibility even though I knew that logically anyone who had tickets would not be dining at 7:15 pm when I would be arriving.

Chimichurri Grill is not as brightly lit as several other restaurants in their neighborhood. In fact, one could miss it entirely. Its humble black awning with the name in white make it seem to take a step back from the sidewalk as compared to the garish lights of nearby, larger establishments. 

One look inside and I could see unoccupied tables with two chairs among the total of 14. The small bar in front limits the number of tables near the window, but confirmed the uncomfortable stools. I met the man I spoke with on the phone when I announced my reservation. As he seated me at a table in the center of the one-room restaurant he repeated the “no solo diners” reservation policy. I advised him to inform soon to avoid future embarrassments.

Arthur Schwartz advised me long ago to do everything at a restaurant with a smile, especially when entering and it took some effort, but I accomplished that. I told Wilmer, my server, that I would like to start with “El Gibson” – Nolet’s Silver dry gin, Noily Prat dry vermouth and house-made pickled pearl onions. Served in an elegant martini glass, it was a good drink, but not as dry as the two ingredients promised. I would like to own pearls as big as the two onions skewered on the swizzle stick. They were almost golf ball size and delicious.

The wine list was also quite impressive, with at least 20 Malbecs listed on the first page. But I pressed on to see what else I could find, eventually choosing a 2013 Almancaya Gran Reserva “Lafite Rothschild” Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon varietal. The two grapes worked well together (in equal parts) to create a rich, intense red wine, without being over-bearing or too dry.

The first dish to arrive was the Sopa Pescado “Patagonian” (seafood soup), made with clams, mussels onions, tomatoes and other vegetables. It was like eating an excellent gazpacho, but hot with just the right hints of spices. Though I don’t like clams in general, I had to rave about the ones in this soup. They were not rubbery or even excessively chewy with a pleasant flavor, not metallic. The mussels almost melted in the mouth.

Next came the appetizer, a “Trio of Chorizo” – Argentine pork, blood sausage and red Spanish spicy – served with red and green dipping sauces. All were excellent, especially the blood sausage: delicate, rich, earthy and savory.

My main course was the Ancho boneless ribeye steak topped with caramelized Vidalia onions. Served on a dark wood plate it was easily as good a steak as I’ve ever had. The side dish – Col Risada (sautéed kale in garlic and oil) was the best kale I’ve ever tasted, better than the best steakhouse spinach sides. Cooked to a little less than crispy and drenched in garlic, it still had that exciting “green” flavor of kale. 

In my dining experiences, the dessert with the longest name is usually the simplest and best after a very filling meal. This proved true again. The Queso de Oveja Manchego y Membrillowedges of Manchego cheese with quince preserve and raspberry sauce, was as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. I prefer guava paste to quince but this was really very good. 

I saw the national drink of Argentina and ordered the Mate “Gaucho Macho.” I was a bit disappointed when it tasted like nothing but hot water – nothing “Macho” about it. I told Wilmer and he treated me to a glass of port wine, mumbling something about the mate not being the same as in Argentina. Mate is a tea drink, but no tea should be that wimpy.

I would really like to return to Chimichurri Grill, but will have to bring a dining companion the next time. I know just whom I would bring. I was surprised to learn later on that Chimichurri Grill has been in business for over 18 years and has a sister restaurant on the East Side. Except for the food and the wine, it seemed like their first year.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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