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A good cocktail seems to be made following a few of the same principles of successful movie making. Both cocktails and movies should admit only good-quality high-proof characters. In both cocktails and movies, the constituent ingredients should make sense together, should cohere. Both cocktails and movies should have a singular point of view and both should whet rather than dull the appetite. Alas, Hey Bartender, a documentary by Doug Tirola about the new age of the cocktail, follows none of these rules. It's the Fuzzy Navel of documentaries, a red hot boozy mess.
Whether or not you are a fan of the cocktail world, that nocturnal demimonde of suspenders and homemade bitters, mustaches and Manhattans, tattoos and pretension, there is a really interesting story somewhere to be told about how and why cocktails have become "a thing." Part of the trend seems to be nostalgia for the 1920s, part of it seems in line with a recent devotion to craft and part of it seems just run-of-the-mill nightlife trendiness, but there is something intriguing there. Since I actually am a big fan of this world, despite the requisite snark, I was extremely excited to hear of Hey, Bartender!, which purported to tell "the story of how the renaissance of the bartender comes to be in the era of the craft cocktail."
Julie Reiner. [Photo: Hey Bartender]
But to craft a compelling documentary about that, as opposed to a PBS special on it, a film must take one of two approaches, or, if you can pull it off, both. Either be really specific — exploring either the technique (for instance, the mania for glassware or the pursuit of the perfect ice cube) or the underpinnings (viz. the role cocktails have played in America, our nostalgia for the early 20th century, how well the reality compares with our conceptions of it, etc..) — or find really compelling characters through which you can tell the story of the modern cocktail.
Mr. Tirola doesn't even attempt the former. For a documentary purportedly dedicated to shining a light on the poorly understood world of artisanal cocktails there is a shocking lack of specifics. There is absolutely no technical discussion here and only a couple half-assed history lessons with bullshit stock footage. Instead Mr. Tirola favors countless slow-mo shots of bartenders pushing their cocktails toward the camera. Note: A bartender sliding his cocktail in slow motion across the bar is a bartender who looks like an asshole. But of what constitutes a quality cocktail, Mr. Tirola, and his countless talking heads, is silent.
Steve Schneider. [Photo: Hey Bartender]
Fine. That's not the documentary Mr. Tirola wanted to make. Instead, he loosely focuses on two main characters: Steve Schneider, an intriguing young mustachioed apprentice at Employees Only in New York City, and Steve Carpentieri, the owner and bartender of a locals bar called Dunville's in Westport, CT.
I can kind of see what Mr. Tirola was trying to do. On the storyboard, at least, it sounds good. Schneider is the emissary of the new cocktail world: He's young, tattooed, obsessed with ingredients and technique, and based in New York. Carpentieri represents the older bar mentality: a blue-collar, hard-scrabble, hard-drinking watering hole, powered by shots and draft beers. The two worlds meet at 2011's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, a conclave of cocktail's kings and queens, with Mr. Schneider victorious, enthroned as a bartender at the world's best cocktail bar (which EO was that year) and Mr. Carpentieri converted into the brave new world.
Jim Meehan. [Photo: Hey Bartender]
But it all falls flat. I wouldn't say that Mr. Tirola picked duds. It's just that Mr. Tirola has included just the right amount of personal details to intrigue but not enough to satisfy. We learn Mr. Schneider was once a Marine but was injured in what he describes as an accident and fell into a coma for eight days. [It turns out, he got in a fight at a bar because his brother was hitting on another guy's girlfriend.] We learn Mr. Carpentieri's house is in foreclosure, that he's recently divorced and his business is failing.
Mr. Schneider is a complete weirdo. His fanaticism to Employees Only seems lunatic. His battle mentality and his need for validation is both troubling and touching. His narcissism is mind boggling [At one point he stamps his own silhouette onto a hundred dollar bill.] His mustache itself could be the subject of a terrific short, but his life would make a compelling exploration of need. It would be dark, for sure, but enlightening.
As for my own tastes in heroes, I found myself wanting to know much more about Steve Carpentieri. He's the sort of guy, barely cusping on self-awareness, that makes movie magic. His story is just so tragic — not just the facts of his life and business but how he fits into the mixology scene and how he fits into the Westport, CT. scene — and he bears it with such good will and openness, you can't help but love the guy. At one point he tells the camera, perhaps grasping the tragic irony and perhaps not, "Do you know Dunville's auto-corrects to Downfalls?" He also buys a pork pie hat in New Orleans because he has seen other bartenders where them and wants to improve his thought processes. He thought the hat might do it.
Dale DeGroff. [Photo: Hey Bartender]
But Mr. Tirola just splashes around in the shallow end. He pads out the movie with pointless interviews with a who's who of the cocktail world and the who's who of the regular world. Everyone is in this movie, from Jim Meehan to Graydon Carter, Dale Degroff to Julie Reiner. But they don't actually say anything. It's not their fault. I know a bunch of these talking heads and they are all fantastically knowledgeable about their craft and passionate about it. I have to think they were just asked the wrong questions.
The real shame is that Mr. Tirola had all the ingredients for a great film. He had the characters. He had the story. He had the material. But he couldn't or wouldn't focus it into any sort of coherence. The result is a disaster. I actually can't think of anyone who will find this movie interesting. Real cocktail nerds, who can't miss the fact that it's not at all educational, will be annoyed with its superficiality and probably that they weren't asked to be in it (though probably they are in it). Lovers of narrative cinema will be frustrated by its lack of structure, coherence, plot, characters, competence, beauty, story, discipline, direction, pacing, drama, joy, sadness, depth, and interest.
If I ever ordered this movie — it's on demand and in theaters — I'd send it back. "Hey Bartender," I'd say. "Take back this trash. Give me a shot of whisky. And make it neat."
Rating: 1/5 stars