Hey Bartender: Film Review
Friday, June 7
Director Douglas Tirola introduces a few of the people who have made this a great time to have a drink.
Douglas Tirola's Hey Bartender is a split-personality doc that talks up the cocktail renaissance while devoting much of its time to facets of the barkeep's job that hold true, whether you're pouring a perfectly calibrated French 75 or a sloppy mug of Bud. This renders the film too broad in theme and too narrow in execution. It will attract the attention of a public who is increasingly educated about gourmet matters but leave the most serious viewers unsatisfied. Fatally, for a film of this sort, it doesn't leave the viewer wanting a drink.
What the film does fairly well is history, introducing us to enough spirits scholars -- from self-appointed historians to Dale DeGroff, whose tenure at the Rainbow Room led many to call him King Cocktail -- to explain why a 21st-century renaissance was needed: Cocktails were just getting serious when Prohibition quashed the culture; they were hopelessly square after World War II; the '80s cared more about Tom Cruise-ish showmanship than palatable ingredients, while '90s bar culture was dominated by cocaine and celebrity DJs.
At this point in the story, though, the film loses focus. While we are introduced to some of the entrepreneurs who helped get their customers serious about drinking (Pegu Club's Julie Reiner, Jim Meehan of PDT), there are big gaps in the portrait and mystifying choices of emphasis. Where are the mad scientists who have applied the techniques of modernist cuisine to drinkmaking? Why wait until 50 minutes in to introduce the tremendously influential Sasha Petraske, and why spend so little time with him even then?
More importantly, the film never really gets around to focusing on what it is that makes today's craft cocktail superior to the swill at T.G.I. Friday's. We do hear the words "fresh juices" once or twice, but the ingredients in a present-day bartender's arsenal are almost entirely ignored by the film, and the details that separate an okay drink from a sublime one -- nuances of ice and shaking, how the drink is presented, and so on -- go unexplored. We only once see someone tinker with an in-development recipe, and the drink he's concocting is a long way from menu-worthy.
That aspiring cocktailer is Steve Schneider, a former Marine who has turned his Semper Fi passion toward a Greenwich Village bar, Employees Only, that's among New York's most successful cocktail dens. He's an apprentice there, doing all he can to learn the skills that will get him promoted to principal bartender, and his zeal makes for some colorful scenes. But it doesn't explain why he would be one of the doc's two primary subjects, especially since the other -- Steve Carpentieri, whose Westport, CT, bar Dunville's is a run-of-the-mill watering hole -- is a complete foreigner to the mixology scene.
In his search for narrative hooks, Tirola settles on these two men, emphasizing their personal stories at the expense of his main subject. Even accepting that focus, the film isn't surefooted: Dunville's is introduced as the most popular bar around, where locals and staff are like family, and a few scenes later we see Carpentieri looking at an empty bar, struggling to revive his business by learning how to make a decent drink.
What happened between A and B? Who knows. But given a closing shot in which the new mixology convert dumps a drink in a class without straining out the ice used to mix it, Dunville's has a way to go before it merits inclusion in a film about serious cocktails.
Production Company: 4th Row Films
Director-screenwriter: Douglas Tirola
Producers: Susan Bedusa, Douglas Tirola
Director of photography: Charles Poekel
Music: Joe Jackson
Editor: Robert Greene
No rating, 93 minutes