I'm going to buy "Hey Bartender" on Bluray when it comes out. The movie is a beautiful celebration of the service industry at its peak, with shots capturing some of America's best bars crafting their art. To watch the world's very best bartenders push a drink across the bar is nothing short of mesmerizing. That is why I don't completely fault director Douglas Tirola for losing sight of his subject in a haze of drunken adoration.
As the movie opens to the disheveled backroom of a Connecticut pub, owner and bartender Steve 'Carpi' Carpentieri examining the remnants of last night's glassware through weary eyes, you get the sense that the movie might show the struggles and unseen aspects of life behind the bar. Ten minutes in that scene is all but forgotten, an unneccessary add on to the film which has now become a love letter penned at the altar of the cocktail. And that consistent self congratulatory air is about the only constant in a film that struggles to find it's purpose for much of its running time.
In sharp contrast to bank executive turned lifetime barman and lovable schmuck Carpi, the film introduces Steve Schneider, former marine turned consummate Brooklyn hipster bartender. You find it hard not to root for Schneider, stereotypical handlebar mustache and all. To see what the man has overcome in such a short period of time to become one of the best in his field is inspiring to say the least.
Schneider walks a fine line between humble student and experienced braggart, the mark of a man almost certainly fully aware of his incredible talents yet smart enough not to show his hand. The problem with "Hey Bartender" is not with Steve or any of his dapper bow tie and mustacheod fellow cocktail experts, of which there are plenty (Not to discount the ladies, cocktail legends Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders make extended appearances as well). Rather the director's continued instance that the double digit pricetag Negronis and Mai Tais so eloquently pushed across the bar are the standard. As if, but of course, the average American drinks Fernet cocktails instead of Rum and Coke.
To make matters worse, Tirola backs up the wild scenes of high end New York cocktail bars such as PDT and Employees Only -- which in 2011 was named "Best Cocktail Bar in the World" at the Spirited Awards -- with sad scenes of Capentieri shuffling through his empty bar on the way to his soon to be foreclosed upon home. If Hey Bartender is to be believed, every corner pub in America is about to be usurped by a high end speakeasy style cocktail bar.
In between scenes of celebration of Repeal Day -- The day prohibition ended in 1933 -- We get truly interesting history lessons describing the diaspora of the current cocktail movement, from the first cocktail bars in the 1980s, owned and tended by the first pioneers in New York City who can trace their influence to the current crop of cocktail bars now operating in New York and beyond. These moments of actual document are too few however and the films instance on sending our poor Connecticut bar owner to the annual cocktail orgy that is Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans just seems cruel. He trundles through the conference looking slightly uncomfortable and very out of place, clearly wanting to believe that, despite his misgivings,maybe as the filmmakers have told him, cocktails will save his bar.
It's uncomfortable, imbalanced and mean spirited watching this man who has spent decades behind a bar -- in a town that clearly loves him and his small bar -- spend the movie being invalidated next to the speed contest winning and bottle slinging antics of Schnieder.
In the end there is a moment of near redemption where our poor beleaguered bar owner realizes that it is not the product that will save his bar so much as the rekindling of his passion for service and a sense of pride for his bar. This moment is gone all too quickly though and you can't help but wonder why Carpentieri was included in the film at all if not a misguided attempt to make Schnieder seem even cooler than his tattoos and swagger already do.
The quick eye will catch Houston bartenders in the film. Alba Huerta, Yael Vengroff and Mindy Kucan caught my eye but an astute Houston cocktail aficionado might notice other Houston faces that I missed.
Music is very important to a film and the soundtrack in "Hey Bartender" is ultimately compelling. Setting a movie to a single artist is always a gamble and Joe Jackson is never a safe bet but here it works... for the most part.
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Where the music stumbles it does so very blatantly. "Is She Really Going Out with Him" is thankfully absent but the all Joe Jackson soundtrack still has spots that simply don't fit the film. As much as I enjoy Jackson, I also found it ironic that Tirola decided to set his oh-so-American movie to a British soundtrack.
That is not to mention the songs of a musician who has campaigned against smoking bans in bars. Just so we are clear, smoking bans in bars are almost unarguably tied to the rise and success of the new American cocktail bar. Now you see why I can't help but feel Tirola doesn't so much have a finger on the pulse, but rather is spending his time drinking of the Kool-Aid.
In the end you have a beautifully shot film that is jam packed with energy and two very likable, if polar opposite, protagonists. You get some very good snips of history along with some of the most important faces in the scene of the new American bar. Unfortunately the films insistence that the Cocktail bar is sitting on top of the world is a myopic Manhattan-centric view that discounts the ongoing revolution that is less than a decade old.
Amid all its sexy pomp and circumstance, "Hey Bartender" falters, mistaking popularity for success. Watching, you can't help but feel the new American cocktail bar has arrived, usurping Rum and Coke with Chartreuse and Scotch, which simply is not the case. I found myself conjuring up George W. Bush in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner while watching this film. The cocktail nerds and bar fanatics among us will find a lot to like here, but the glitzy facade doesn't hold up to scrutiny.