Flickchart Road Trip: New Jersey
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I’ve reached New Jersey, the armpit of America.
At least, that’s the reputation this state has among those who don’t live here. I grew up a couple states away in Massachusetts, and all anyone could talk about when New Jersey came up was factories and toxic waste and rude people who went to the mall too much and wore too much hairspray. I don’t suppose unofficial Jersey ambassadors Snooki and The Situation have done a lot to change that impression. Anyone who’s seen the Saturday Night Live skits where Fred Armisen plays former New York governor David Paterson, and every joke ends with the punchline “New Jersey!”, knows the place don’t get no respect.
In truth, though, this is a state with a lot of beauty, and is home to one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning in Princeton University. Unfortunately, now is also not the greatest time to be reminded of the beauty New Jersey has to offer. Although I jumped off the not-very-beautiful New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) for a drive along the famous Jersey Shore, that only served to remind me of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the region last fall. Although the approaching summer season has certainly meant the region is making a strong comeback, the reminders are still pretty poignant, and left me just a little depressed.
The best answer to depression? A yummy BBQ lunch. That brings us to my primary New Jersey stop, Fink’s BBQ Smokehouse in Dumont. I’ve known Fink — yes, the same Fink in the name of the restaurant — for 25 years, and his wife for 20. The man is a wizard with spices and saucepans. Just feast your eyes on the menu the day I was there:
Farmer Klause’s Chili
Slow Smoked Pork Shoulder, Chopped Beef, and Wurst (Don’t Be Scared)
Topped with Sour Cream & Scallions 5
Three Mommas Gumbo
A Cow, a Sau, and a Hen pack the pot
in this Creole Classic over rice 6
Slow Smoked Sliced Beef Brisket Available Every Wednesday
Sandwich with Fries and Pickles 12
Ala Carte Platter 15
Hawaiian Pork Sliders
A pair of Smoked Pork Sliders Topped with a Pineapple Sesame Glaze
Served with Fries and Pickles 11
I had the chili, the brisket and a cool glass of lemonade. Mmm mmm good.
After a lovely visit with Fink and his family, I was on my merry way northward.
I couldn’t leave New Jersey without watching my Jersey movie, of course, which was from a Jersey favorite son: Sopranos creator David Chase. You must think I’m going for some kind of theme here, as my Delaware movie last week (Clean and Sober) was also the directorial debut of a successful creator of television shows: Glenn Gordon Caron. Chase’s semi-autobiographical Not Fade Away is struggling big time in the global rankings at #37723, but that’s likely because it got lost in the shuffle of last year‘s holiday movies and was only released on DVD three weeks ago.
What it’s about
The British Invasion is underway in suburban New Jersey of the 1960s, and Douglas D’Adario (John Magaro) dreams of his own path to stardom through rock-n-roll. He becomes the drummer in a high school garage band after the regular drummer is drafted to Vietnam, and eventually becomes the singer when the regular singer can’t perform one night due to a marijuana mishap. Douglas’ musical aspirations don’t sit well with his parents (James Gandolfini and Molly Price), who want to see him go to college and make sensible life choices — especially since his father’s health problems could leave him with an unanticipated level of responsibility toward his family. Having joined the band to win the attentions of a pretty girl (Bella Heathcote), Douglas achieves his goal and begins dating his muse. However, he finds that life in a band strains as many relationships as it develops, and the band’s going to have to go through numerous fits and starts if it’s going to catch the eye of the music producer who can give them their big break (Brad Garrett).
How it uses the state
Leave it to a writer who appreciates subtlety to draw very little attention to the setting of his movie. Part of that is probably pragmatic egoism; Chase knows we know he wrote it, and knows we know he’s a New Jersey boy. This allows him to establish his setting mostly by throwaway mentions of New Jersey towns that only New Jerseyans might know are actually in New Jersey. However, one overt mention comes when a member of the band dismisses the idea of playing one particular gig: “The Jersey Shore is all Four Seasons people. They wouldn’t understand what we do.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other New Jersey movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Not Fade Away will battle:
1) Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze). My Flickchart: #278/3523. Global: #359. Spike Jonze’ existential masterpiece takes place primarily in New York, but I’m including it here because it showcases an essential aspect of New Jersey’s reputation: pedestrian ugliness. Once time is up for the tourists in Malkovich’s brain, they’re spat out next to the New Jersey Turnpike. If there’s a less glamorous spot on earth, I’m not sure what it is. The sublime originality on display in Being John Malkovich made it an unforgettable introduction to two unique talents, Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Their reunion on 2002‘s Adaptation may have been even more brilliant, but it couldn’t tap into the zeitgeist the way this movie about tapping into celebrity managed to do.
2) Garden State (2004, Zach Braff). My Flickchart: #810/3523. Global: #913. Zach Braff was still trying to bask in the glow of his reviews for Garden State when he hosted Saturday Night Live — nearly three years later. Most hot commodities would have already made their follow-up by then, but Braff had to launch a Kickstarter campaign just last month to try to get his sophomore effort made. All this and my general impressions of Braff as a human being have me trending downward on Garden State. However, I can’t ignore that I really dug it when I first saw it, as Braff was able to capture something essential about the ennui of New Jersey twentysomethings. Plus, we all seem to remember that scene of Natalie Portman introducing Braff’s character to The Shins.
3) Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle). My Flickchart: #1472/3523. Global: #1626. Garden State may be reasonably thoughtful, but the most contemplative movie on this list is the one that takes its title from America’s second-most-famous gambling locale. Atlantic City, which was nominated for each of the five top Oscars (winning none), is one of those dramas where sad loners reach out to one another to make a difference in each others’ lives — often at great risk to the isolated but safe existences they’ve so far been living. Burt Lancaster is heartbreaking as an aging resident of the coastal city who tries to intervene in the life of a young Canadian woman (Susan Sarandon), who arrived in Atlantic City to escape her drug-dealing husband. I might rate this film higher, except that I just don’t remember it very well.
4) Mallrats (1995, Kevin Smith). My Flickchart: #2630/3523. Global: #791. Jersey filmmaker Kevin Smith has to settle for a mixed bag here. I could have featured his classic Clerks, which is in my top 500, but I was also considering the flop Jersey Girl as my unseen Jersey movie, which could have come out a lot worse for him. So we’ll land in the middle with Mallrats, a cult favorite of many people … just not me. You wouldn’t exactly call the dialogue in Clerks “naturalistic,” but I couldn’t ignore how the characters in this movie trip over the strangled cleverness coming out of their mouths. It seemed like a step backward for Smith, since it’s so puerile and gross while including none of the counterbalancing wisdom of Clerks. (Remind me never to shake hands with Jason Lee under any circumstances.) Due to local production costs, the movie had to be shot in a mall in Minnesota rather than the Ocean Township mall where Smith wanted to shoot.
5) Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009, Steve Carr). My Flickchart: #3500/3523. Global: #11479. Am I laying it on a little thick with the mall movies in New Jersey? Well again, that’s the stereotypical view of the state: that one of the primary things to do, especially if you’re a teenager, is go to the mall. That made New Jersey a natural location for a movie about a mall cop — it’s just too bad it had to be this mall cop movie (though Observe and Report is also pretty flawed). Simply put, I will never understand how audiences rewarded this collection of lame pratfalls and lamer jokes with the kind of domestic box office (nearly $150 million) that makes you wonder why there haven’t already been two sequels. I guess the charm of Kevin James, as the mall security guard who dreams of becoming a New Jersey state trooper, just eludes me.
First duel: Not Fade Away vs. Atlantic City. If you’re a betting man/woman, bet on Atlantic City. Atlantic City wins.
Second duel: Not Fade Away vs. Mallrats. The members of this band are pre-hairspray by about 15 years. Not Fade Away wins.
Not Fade Away finishes fourth out of the six movies.
It’s entirely possible to find a movie minutely observed, precisely acted and in most other ways fully realized, and yet still not be fully grabbed by it. That’s definitely the case for me with Not Fade Away, and true enough, it’ll probably fade from my memory pretty quickly.
David Chase’s problem is that he’s made a very personal movie in a very impersonal fashion. In fact, he doesn’t seem able to determine who the movie should really be about, even though the character based on him is ostensibly the protagonist. John Magaro as Douglas D’Adario doesn’t give Chase a lot of help; he’s not naturally charismatic, and other actors certainly could have made a more lasting impression in that role. However, Chase doesn’t do Magaro any favors either. He gives the movie’s narration to Douglas’ sister, played by Meg Guzulescu, who is otherwise little more than an uninvolved bystander, and Chase himself has summarized the movie from the perspective of James Gandolfini’s character, describing it as the story of “a postwar, post-Depression era parent who has given his kid every advantage that he didn’t have growing up, but now can’t help feeling jealous of the liberated, more adventurous destiny his son is able to enjoy.” Chase has also still got an axe to grind about his own mother, who was also the inspiration for Livia Soprano, and here is portrayed by a shrill and uptight Molly Price. The focus should probably be Magaro and his bandmates, but they are observed using fly-on-the-wall methods that prevent them from developing distinct personalities. One of the most compelling actors on screen, other than Gandolfini, is Bella Heathcote as Douglas’ love interest, but her character arc is also pretty lackluster, especially as it relates to her relationship with Douglas.
That’s a lot of complaints about Not Fade Away, but they’re all tied to a low-key approach by Chase that doesn’t happen to resonate perfectly with me. The parts of this movie that are right are very right. These relate mostly to the details of 1960s New Jersey, which are so authoritative yet so casual that everything about the production feels effortless. It’s clear that Chase lived through this era and internalized it, making Not Fade Away a real pleasure for viewers content with the modest narrative goal of consuming a vivid slice of his memory. Viewers who have more of an interest in definitive plot developments and traditional dramatic structure will not be as satisfied, but they should still recognize it as a smooth transition to the cinema for Chase.
New York, Newwww York! It’s a challenging state for series like this, simply because it provides so many darn choices that a person doesn’t even know where to begin. Well, here’s one possible place to begin: I’ll be checking out the biggest apple of them all, Jay Gatsby, in Baz Luhrmann‘s new adaptation of The Great Gatsby. In 3D no less!