Saturday, December 5, 2009

Clooney & Me

They finally the made the movie of my life and it depressed the hell out of me.

On the plus side, I get to be played by George Clooney, which once and for all validates what I’ve always believed was a spiritual connection between us.  Seriously.  Why else would I revel in suits with no ties and open collars, or have suffered through the penultimate seasons of The Facts of Life, the sit-com E/R (with Elliott Gould, Mary McDonnell and Conchata Ferrell) or Ocean’s Twelve (Bleh)???

Seriously, though: go see Up In The Air right now.  You’ve probably already seen some reviews or the trailer, and have an idea of what it’s about, but here’s a brief synopsis:

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a traveling executive who is hired by companies that are undergoing layoffs.  His job is to dismiss the employees, provide them with information about the transition (severance, etc.) and manage their emotions.  He eagerly spends 300 or more nights away from his barren Omaha apartment, finding a freedom in an untethered life of independence.  Suddenly, his way of life comes under fire by a young upstart (Anna Kendrick, in a career-making performance) who proposes to reduce costs by shifting the workforce from face-to-face terminations to video conferencing.

The irony that all of a sudden Bingham’s own way of life is threatened is fairly predictable, as is how it transforms him – first into a humanist and then, ultimately, a human.  In fact, the entire plot is either predictable or loudly telegraphed, which ends up being beside the point.  The plot is just a device to tell a story about how we make and miss connections all the time – often without an airport in sight.

And to showcase some of the finest screen performances of the year.  Clooney is tanned, trim and irresistible; he sells you on a lifestyle that is so isolating – a career so airless, joyless and soulless – that you almost want to go out and find one for yourself.  Kendrick – who telegraphed such promise as early as 2003’s Camp – is a revelation; her performance is a dance of bravado and fear, self-confidence and doubt.  She truly captures what it feels like to make the transition from being a student to living and working on your own, and her final scene showcases the complexities of humility and the freedom of choosing for yourself without compromise.

Vera Farmiga, as the woman Clooney first – and finally – manages to connect with is perfectly cast as his female doppelganger.  She’s luminous, and so completely convincing that the one plot development you expect – and then begin to doubt – involves her, and you doubt it because she’s so good inhabiting that woman you’ve seen a million times.  You know her, the blond who always has a blue suit and a black roll-aboard.  She’s somewhere between 30 and 50 but you’re not quite sure where.  She sells medical devices or software and she’s always in a good mood, she drinks scotch and laughs with the fellas, and she is unruffled by everything; impossible to penetrate.  You’re pretty certain she’s a bitch, but she’s always so composed and funny and flirtatious that you can’t prove it. 

That’s her.

The briefer performances are no less powerful.  Jason Bateman, as Clooney’s boss, chews through his scenes with smarmy joy.  J.K. Simmons (the dad, from Juno) is winning as a just-laid-off worker at a loss for his next move.  Only Bingham’s family is a let-down.  Melanie Lynskey, as his about-to-be-married younger sister is woefully underused in an underwritten role that could have been funnier.  Her wedding could have helped raise the stakes for Bingham but somehow feels to let the air of the urgency instead.  And Amy Morton, in what is essentially a reprise of her August: Osage County role, does her put-upon-sister-whose-really-the-matriarch thing.  She’s good at it, but it showed no range and sticks to pretty much one note.

That this film should come along – after all those years I said there needed to be a movie that captured the quiet desperation of the road warrior – feels like a message as I wrestle with taking a job with a software company while I continue to pursue my television career.  It asks all sorts of questions about what compromises we’re willing to make, why me make them, and what they really cost.  True, while some of the issue is not what we do, but how we do it, there is an inevitable disconnectedness that comes from living your life up in the air.  And the most powerful, most resonant moment in the picture comes when Clooney, in his role of sincerely selling insincerity, connects with a recently terminated worker by asking, "How much did they pay you to give up on your dream?"

The movie was just named best film of the year by the National Board of Review (one of the first organizations to announce its year-end awards) and it's not surprising.  In our anxiety-ridden times of 10% unemployment, this film truly is the movie of 2009, the year the economy forced us all to reconcile who we are (who we've become, who we are becoming) with who we want to be.

What’s not up in the air is how I feel about Ocean Grill, on Columbus Avenue between 77th and 78th St., where Neil and I ate on Thursday evening.  If I were shooting a film set in New York during Christmas season, this would be my first choice.  It’s spacious, but not cavernous, with dark wood floors, lighter-colored walls adorned with photographs (echoes of Sardi’s, but not tacky) and a chair rail.  It’s one of those places that feels elegant, in a very New York way.  Every table is intimate enough for private conversation, but the layout allows you to feel that you’re “among the people” and you wonder if somebody who is somebody is seated just a table or two away.

We shared a split pea soup to start.  Smoky with the flavor of bacon, without any lardons actually in the soup, it was rich and delicious, without being overly weighty for an appetizer.  Neil ordered a horseradish-crusted salmon with goat cheese gnocchi, forest mushrooms and butternut squash.  The salmon was expertly cooked, enhanced by the crispy crust, and set off by the squash and gnocchi which managed to add not just sweetness, but lightened the dish.  I enjoyed an oven-roasted Chilean sea bass that was moist and flavorful, served atop honeyed eggplant prepared with curry and raisins that was unexpected and delicious.  It was accompanied by polenta fries and a tangy emulsion of violet and mustard.

Meanwhile, it’s pouring down rain and very cold today.  A bleak day, made bleaker as I struggle through an episode of Melrose Place.  Did they really just introduce a plotline about Ashlee Simpson Wentz having slept with her brother.  Adopted, yeah, but so what. That’s gross.  This show gets one more episode before I give up completely on it.  (Why was incest so much less creepy in the movie Clueless?  Was it because they were step-borther/sister, and their parents were only briefly married?  Or is the magic that is Alicia Silverstone?  The world may never know.

So, I’ve got some time before the Florida/Alabama game.  I’m off to the kitchen for another batch of Christmas cookies.  These chocolate-toffee bars are always a hit.  Make two pans – one is never enough.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour

6 ounces semi sweet chocolate, chopped (can use 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips)
1/2 cup almonds or pecans, chopped and toasted.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place oven rack in the center of the oven. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil.
Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla extract. Then add the salt and flour and mix just until incorporated. Spread the shortbread evenly on the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until the shortbread is golden brown with well browned edges.
Remove from oven and immediately scatter the chopped chocolate over the hot shortbread. The chocolate will begin to melt; with an offset spatula or back of a spoon, evenly spread the chocolate. Sprinkle the choppeds nut over the chocolate. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool.
Once the chocolate has set, lift the shortbread from the pan using the edges of the foil. Place on a cutting board and, with a sharp knife, cut into 16 squares.
Cool completely and then chop.
DO THIS, New York:
Go see Up in the Air
Eat at Ocean Grill
Make my chocolate-toffee bars.
DON’T DO THIS, New York:
I’d skip Melrose Place.  And incest.

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