Romance is boring

Make an onion tart

My thoughts on a few Hallmark holiday-adjacent movies, including some recent mainstream ones that don’t comprise my normal viewing. Also, a few rejiggered desserts.

What Happened Was….

Tom Noonan, 1994

Impressed by this newly restored directorial debut from the lanky and laconic actor Tom Noonan, best known for playing himself on Horace and Pete and a serial killer in Michael Mann’s “Red Dragon” adaptation. He casts himself in a prickly role opposite Karen Silas as two co-workers on a date — which he didn’t even realize it was, so he claims, even though she put on a dress, set the table, and served scallops in cream sauce reheated in the microwave. The conversational vibes are early Linklater, the spacious studio apartment and decor lighting recalls Tom DiCillo set-up, but what happens — the balletic synergy of polite smiles and lowered eyelids, unintentional barbs and unexpected endearments, and the magnanimous truth about all the lonely people is all Noonan’s own. Highly recommend shelling out $10 to watch it via Film Forum where it’s currently screening.

Sleeping with Other People 

Lesley Hedlund, 2015

Is giving the highest points for the least fouls a good scoring system? Sports are not my realm, neither is the one of romantic comedy, where this movie comfortably resides. There is little inherently wrong with this picture, which makes everything wrong with it. It takes place in actual New York, is frequently hilarious, and finds an extremely suitable use for Jason Sudeikis, rendering his mealiness into something nearly attractive (not unlike the way Bill Hader debuted his discrete sexiness in Train Wreck). 

Alison Brie (MVP of every picture she’s been in) and Sudeikis lose their virginity to each other at Columbia, and meet years later at a sex addicts anonymous meeting. The addiction part is casually dropped, from the character’s backstory and the script more generally, as they discuss their respective inabilities to foster meaningful relationships — Brie is hopelessly fixated on a dentist (Adam Scott, returning to type) while Sudeikis works at a startup. Whenever the pair approach the corner of hot and heavy they deescalate using a safe word, “mousetrap,” which could've been the alternative title of this film since it’s thematically as risque and child-friendly as the boardgame of the same name.

Essentially a Meg Ryan picture with quippier dialogue, Sleeping with Other People turns into “sleeping with one person for the rest of your life,” adhering to the usual stakes and upholding the status quo — an unexpected turn for Hedlund who kicked off her film career with the acidulous Bachelorette. Disney made the right choice choosing her to direct their Star Wars pic. 

Juliet, Naked

Jesse Peretz, 2011

Resembling a mashup of Nick Nolte and Ben Affleck, Ethan Hawke skulks around the screen as a reclusive aging musician, but the exceptional actor has too much dignity to let the fruits of his character’s rockstar idleness overtake his physical well-being so in this movie he exhibits only a hint of dad-bod and his skin is only slightly burnt siena. He also does a solo version of Waterloo Sunset that makes this rom-com worth your time. Rose Byrne flits opposite him in the role of underappreciated girlfriend who is kind and patient, more than “stuck-up georgeous nemesis” parts she’s often given.

In a coastal English town, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) obsesses over a musician named Crowe (Hawke) so much that he presides over a fan site. But Crowe falls in love with Byrne’s character who catches his eye when she blasts his freshly discovered basement-tape single on the message boards —  an act of calculated resentment to troll her distracted boyfriend that works: Crowe comes calling, or emailing rather. While she initially catches Crowe/Hawke’s affection by negging his work, she sustains it by never judging or asking about his personal life, which includes his forgotten and forever multiplying progeny. Since these lovebirds are essentially teens embroiled in a love triangle, they are slower on the uptake and more considerate with each other's failings, inviting each other to dinner and museum parties and holding their tongues instead of clocking someone outright in the face.  

The movie is a product of Nick Hornby, who like these characters has been defanged in middle-age. At this point in his successful career, he is both O’Dowd and Hawke, a grown-up fanboy who idolizes music and celebrity as well as a Gen-X dude fading out of relevance.

High Fidelity (Hulu series)

Speaking of Nick Hornby, Zoe Kravtiz lives and breathes John Cusack, down to wearing his clothes. Some outfits are the replicas, others are homages to 90s grunge (Urban Outfitters for the Depop set) including a pickle-colored knit vest that closely resembles a Doug Funny uniform. I appreciated the nods and references and deference to the original, but mostly I watched the series awed by its earnestness and aghast at the prospect that original movie was also this brashly sentimental. (Also of wonder: how Rob walks from Crown Heights to Williamsburg so fast.) The best measure of this show’s success, in my opinion, is that some teen girl is watching this reboot and having her melancholia assuaged and her nerdery validated, thereby beknighting it as something more than just a money grab — though that part seems to have failed; Hulu didn’t renew it.


SHORT TAKES

Two solid entries in the heartbreak canon that personally did not my heart but may twist and shatter yours.

Plunge into the ruinous depths of high school love and watch it crumble in BLUE VALENTINE, starring two tabloid appointed-hotties of the oughteens. Count it wisdom (or cynicism) that rather than feeling moved by the seminal romantic drama of my generation, I was left embarassed and ashamed of high school era relationship decisions.

Another take on romantic dissolution: COLD WAR. Shot in crisp and fashionable black-and-white photography, the Hungarian film about ill-fated lovers recalls Manhattan with a flair of La La Land if it were actually good. Sadly neither this nor Pawel Pawikowski’s much-heralded previous feature get my goat. Excellent on paper, but in reality something is amiss. I’m sure watching it under pandemic circumstances with daily distractions didn’t help.


EAT/MAKE

Sweet things out of the ordinary

  • Red Velvet Bread, A Piece of Cake, Bill Clark’s newsletter

  • Persian Love Cake, Food & Wine

  • Casa Bosques chocolate. Long ago I picked up a cardamom bar at Dimes Market just before heading to Metrograph. I was smitten by the (stickerless) packaging and the high cocoa percentage — I demand at minimum 70%. Turns out it cost nearly $20, but was worth every penny.

  • Lutece’s Onion Tart, NYT

The path to Lutece greatness is an arduous one. While Gabrielle Hamilton, whom I adore, goes out of her way to champion this tart as “straightforward” and “uncomplicated,” I found it anything but. The second comment notes over seven pieces of equipment required, at least some of which the general reader may not own. A solid homecook, though a less-skilled baker, I stumbled through this. Here is a list of my errors to serve as cautionary tale.  

  • I don’t own a fluted tart pan, so I used the next special sort of baking equipment I owned — a (shoddy) false-bottom pan that dripped butter into my oven and set off the smoke detector.

  • In lieu of a pie weight, I scattered a few lima beans around the dough for the blind bake as suggested, unaware of the dough’s hidden power. When I opened the oven door, I was greeted by my kraken tart crust rising erratically above the beans — along with those plumes of butter smoke/steam. Do not skimp on the beans.

  • I know from general recipe browsing and knowledge that ICE. COLD. WATER. is critical to flakiness, but when Hamilton didn’t stress it, I didn’t either and committed a cardinal sin.

  • What is a better substitute for a dough scraper: bare hands run under cold water for ten minutes or alternating silicone spatula and wooden spoons? I don’t know, but I tried both.

To quell the bleating fire alarm, I had to turn the oven off and pause the bake a few times, which was probably what really marred my crust. It was still edible, if lacking the appropriate flakiness, owing to the filling. My caramelized onions were perfect.