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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 22, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Other Guys, 1618 Seafood, Downtown Baseball

Okay, yes, I laughed during The Other Guys. Out loud. Big laughs. About a dozen times. Maybe that's enough for a comedy.

But laughs or no laughs, what a badly written, confusing mess. Not confusing about what happened, but confusing about what was true or not.

I know -- it's fiction. None of it's true. No resemblance to any person living or dead, yadda yadda. But fiction has a kind of truth to it, and comedy especially so. We need a place to stand.

In the Mary Tyler Moore Show, everybody else could be wacky, but Mary Richards herself had to be real. She was cute as a button and funny, but she was real, and she had the same consternation with the antics of the others that we had. In Groundhog Day, we needed Andie McDowell's character to be our frame of reference. In Three Stooges farces, we need Larry. In other words, we need a character who is human, who isn't doing unbelievable things.

In The Other Guys, we've got nobody.

This is the action comedy that sounds great when it's getting pitched but usually falls down and dies in the writing -- think of The Last Action Hero if you doubt me. But at first it looked as if writers Adam McKay and Chris Henchy might have gotten it right.

The premise is that Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are two loser cops who aspire to be the famous (but hideously destructive) action-hero cops (played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson).

As you might expect, Ferrell plays the loserer of the two -- he's a guy who normally does forensic accounting, but for some inexplicable reason he has gotten himself transferred into a detective unit. So we expect that Ferrell will be highly eccentric, while his partner, Mark Wahlberg, is supposed to be the sincere, long-suffering, competent one. You know, Nick Nolte to Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours.

Uh-oh. I shouldn't have mentioned 48 Hours. Because that was a truly brilliant action comedy. So was Beverly Hills Cop, though in that one it was Eddie Murphy who was the character who kept it real. But in those two classic action comedies, the humor arises from attitude, character, and situation.

So we have to redefine The Other Guys a little. Not an "action comedy," but a "screwball action comedy."

So let's compare it to screwball comedies, shall we? Bringing Up Baby -- oops, we have Cary Grant as the befuddled but keep-it-real scientist. How about Arsenic and Old Lace? There we have the girlfriend (Priscilla Lane) to keep reminding us of what "normal" is.

That's who Mark Wahlberg's character should have been. So it's not just disappointing, it's downright baffling when he turns out to be, not unlucky (shooting the wrong person) but insane (the crazy ex-boyfriend). It leaves us nowhere to stand. Nobody is normal.

In fact, the closest thing to "normal" is Michael Keaton as the captain. But he doesn't get enough screen time to carry off the "normal guy" part.

Michael Keaton causes serious problems, though, just by being in the movie. Because he is what Will Ferrell only wishes he were -- a brilliant actor who does comedy. Will Ferrell is a shallow sketch comedian who is always, always, always out of his depth when he shares the screen with actual actors. And Keaton's presence in this movie causes constant embarrassment-by-contrast.

And I say that even though this is the movie in which Ferrell does the least mugging of any role I've seen him in. It's the closest to real he's ever been, as an actor.

This arises in part from the writers' lamest shtick: Having somebody adamantly deny, over and over, what is obvious to everyone else. This means that instead of acting zany, Ferrell has to act as if everything were normal. This keeps him reined in, which is good.

But the writers think we're really, really stupid. Six-year-olds, in fact, to whom the same joke will be funny over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. So they provide us with what they think we'll like.

"Good-bye Sheila" not once but a dozen times (or so it felt).

The mother-in-law coming out to be the go-between in a really randy conversation between a husband and wife -- not funny after the first thing she's forced to say.

Ferrell's seeming obliviousness to his wife's hotness -- which might have worked except that later in the movie they have him admit that he knew she was hot all along, which destroys everything we thought we knew about his character.

Michael Keaton's constant use of tag lines from TLC songs, which didn't work for several reasons: 1. Who knows or remembers anything TLC ever sang? 2. Song tag lines are often most effective when they're already cliches or common figures of speech, which is especially true of TLC songs, so it just sounds like normal speech except that: 3. The other characters are constantly pointing out the references so that even people who don't remember TLC songs are sure to notice that they're getting something "funny." Like somebody explaining a joke to you, and then telling the joke again and explain it again, over and over.

All these clumsy repetitions pile up until the movie sinks under its own wait.

And yet there are enough genuinely funny things that as long I didn't try to care about anything or anybody, I was amused enough not to walk out. And even though his part was badly written, Mark Wahlberg is very, very good -- better than this movie deserved. So were Eva Mendes and Michael Keaton.

But we would have been better off staying home and watching Beverly Hills Cop or 48 Hours.

*

The restaurant at 1618 West Friendly, Avenue, called 1618 Seafood Grille, is one of the two offspring of the old Southern Lights. The other is the newly reborn Southern Lights, which is a cool upgrade of the old one, and much appreciated.

1618 Seafood Grille, on the other hand, is something quite different. In a city that recently lost the brilliant restaurant 223 South Elm, and which has never had a seafood restaurant that rises above near-adequacy, 1618 comes as a revelation.

We had heard good things from friends whom we trust to know what they're seeing and eating in a restaurant, so we arrived with high expectations. The menu was ambitious -- full of strange and inventive combinations that can only work when a chef has an extraordinarily reliable sense of balance.

For instance: "pan fried sea scallop and corn cake served with roasted zucchini, sour cream and sauteed asparagus over a black and navy bean sauce." Every single ingredient except the black beans are or have been on my loathsome list -- yet the combination, seasoned and prepared and arranged on the plate at 1618, is surprisingly enjoyable.

The "crispy shrimp and pork meatballs with a spicy lime chipotle cream and daikon radish salad": I almost cried it was so good.

And the fish tacos? I am repelled by the very notion of fish tacos. But these are so good that it's worth leaning over the plate and letting the habanero sauce drip all over your fingers and the plate in order to eat this perfect flavor-and-texture combination.

My wife was in rapture over the mozzarella, fried green tomato, and fresh vine-ripened tomato salad. I was happily astonished by the brilliant seafood chowder, which is like none I've ever had before.

And the fish entrees? Usually this far inland you won't find the kind of chef who knows how to bring out the flavors of the fish -- you're lucky if the sauces are good. But every entree that showed up at our table pleased everyone.

In short, 1618 immediately shot to the top of our restaurant rotation as the place we're eager to take friends and family to.

Is it perfect in every way? No. The menu is badly in need of an editor who knows how to spell. For instance, bruschetta was misspelled without the h. Admittedly, the incorrect "bruscetta" is spelled the way it's usually mispronounced by untrained waiters -- as "bru-shetta."

(Italian "sce" is pronounced like the English sh; Italian "sche" is pronounced like English sk, or the sch in school, so the word is "bru-sket-ah" when pronounced by someone who knows what they're reading.)

Another misspelling was the annoying hyperforeignism that puts a tilde over the n in "habanero." It's probably the influence of "jalapeño," which has the tilde, so the Spanish word is pronounced "ha-la-pain-yo." But habanero has no tilde in Spanish, and is pronounced with a simple n: "ah-bah-nay-ro." No tilde.

And people in a restaurant with food and service and ambience this fine should not be making menu mistakes like a Red Lobster, OK? Those are the rules, and it's a shame 1618 breaks them.

Fortunately, not everyone is a spelling-and-pronunciation-obsessed former copy editor like me, so nobody but me will care.

The other problem is that the sign out on Friendly Avenue leads you to think that the restaurant faces Friendly Avenue. The address is Friendly Avenue, isn't it? But the establishment that faces the street is Leon's hair styling shop, and what they serve is not delicious.

Instead, you drive around behind the building, where you will find (a) plenty of parking places and (b) the restaurant entrance.

Expect the entrees to cost between 20 and 30 bucks, the appetizers 10 to 13. Make a reservation.

*

I was absolutely right about the insanity of thinking that a baseball stadium would help "revive" downtown. Just as predicted, it's an 8-block (circumference) slab of nothing, so that even when there's a game going on, the stadium still does nothing at all for the street.

It would have been easy for the city to require that the under-the-seats areas provide plenty of streetfront retail space. That's what makes a downtown. But our incredibly ignorant city planners, who apparently haven't read a book about city design in forty years, make no such rules and therefore keep encouraging the building of downtown-killing buildings like tall banks (ooh, we have a skyline!) and parking garages without shops on the street (ooh, another dead spot!) and, of course, our stadium (ooh, we have a minor league team!).

So as my wife and I made our way there to see a game for the first time ever, we couldn't help but notice that while people were streaming into the stadium for a seven-o'clock game, none of the nearby stores was open for business. Just as predicted, the only people making money are those who rent parking spaces; these people aren't customers for anything downtown except what's sold inside the park.

Once inside, we made our way (not very well marked) to the elevator that took us up to the box that a friend had invited us to. Inside, our opinion began to improve at once. The space, both inside the room and outside on the two rows of seats, was ample and comfortable. All who came were friends of ours, and we had a great time talking and enjoying soft drinks and refreshments provided by the ballpark.

We even sometimes watched the game itself. Especially because if you don't watch, foul balls can hit your box with considerable velocity, smacking into windows or the heads of the unwatchful.

About halfway through the game (against Charleston, I believe), our team started making runs. Winning, in fact. At that point the crowd's attention perked up and the game became interesting. Greensboro ended up winning. There was a bit of a glow. Rah.

It's a weird thing: Football is much better on television, because there's something to watch in instant replays -- the heroic athletic stunts, the intricacy of plays. But baseball is horrible on TV, because every hit ball looks the same in instant replay. Now and then a fielder will have a moment of unusual athleticism.

But football is horrible to attend in person, while baseball is fun. Part of the difference is the season of the year, but it's really more about the company. Though football offers plenty of breaks, baseball is one long break, interrupted by occasional moments of minute activity. One pitcher. One hitter. An occasional hurled ball. A twitch from the umpire. Baseball is about waiting for something to happen.

When you're there with friends, though, baseball offers you a couple of hours of good conversation while occasionally somebody does something interesting on the field that makes you fall silent to watch. That's entertainment.

Seriously. I had a great time. And considering how cheaply you can get a seat, it's a great family activity.

But not perfect. For one thing, the announcers and all their stunts were pathetic. Not because they are untalented, but because not one of them has ever been taught how to speak over big public-address systems. With all the echo and reverb, you have to talk very slowly for your words to be intelligible. Speak slowly enough, and you won't sound slow, you'll merely sound clear!

These announcers, alas, were radio-trained. Radio requires a constant stream of fairly rapid talk. Uh-oh -- the opposite of what is needed during a baseball game in an echoey outdoor park. So I truly did not understand any words except the last word of each sentence. That made it impossible to know, let alone care, what they were saying and doing. Talk about bush league -- why don't they get a professional announcer instead of a radio retread?

If it hadn't been for the scoreboard, it would have been impossible to know anything about the game or the players. The scoreboard was excellent.

Look, I still think the downtown stadium has failed to fulfil any of the promises made by its promoters. But it does deliver something good -- baseball, with all that that implies. Of course, it could be delivering the same thing at a refurbished War Memorial, or at a location that didn't leave a four-block (in area) corpse in the middle of downtown.

But the stadium exists, and there's no reason not to go to it.

I'm not enough of a fan to want to have a box for the season, and I'm afraid that attending the game in my friend's box has spoiled me, like flying first class for a while and having to go back to coach. And I'm old enough that I'm not sure I can stand the bleacher seats for the whole game. But that's OK -- I'll just go down and take part in some of the promotional stunt races during inning changes ...


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