American Gangster: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | June 13, 2008 | Comments ()
First, a shout-out to the tenacious, or simply late-yet-obstinate, commenter ben: At the very end of the comment thread for the Five Levels of Hangover column a few weeks ago, ben left an excellent companion piece positing an alternate five-level analysis.
Pop culture item consumed: American Gangster, the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe crime drama about real-life crime godfather Frank Lucas, a 1970s gangster from Harlem who revolutionized the New York City drug trade by finding a cheap (and creepy!) way to import heroin from Southeast Asia and by seizing the drug trade away from the Mafia.
Beverage consumed: the Singapore Sling; I’m a sucker for gin drinks, and for ages now we’ve had a small bottle of cherry brandy, the most exotic element of the Sling. The Sling is a famous cocktail of the Raffles Hotel in … um … wait, wait, don’t tell me … Shanghai? It consists of gin, cherry liqueur, Benedictine, Cointreau, pineapple juice, fresh lime juice, grenadine, and Angostura bitters, garnished with a cherry, pineapple chunks, and an orange slice. Just for kicks, I threw in some dog kibble, lighter fluid, and an old tire I found on the street.
Summary of action: “But why, Ted, why would you go to all that trouble?” For you, dear readers, of course, and to test a theory I have about cocktails and, therefore, life. The best things in life may not be free, but they do tend to be simple: a Saturday afternoon with a good book and a faithful dog; waking up on the beach at dawn with a few friends and a couple of empty whiskey bottles; a fourteen-year-old boy’s first handjob. I think I’ve made my point.
Nevertheless, my New York Bartender’s Guide is full of drinks with seven or eight or nine ingredients. The Singapore Sling is quite obviously not simple. It took me damn near a half-hour to get it all together in sufficient quantity to make it through the film, and even then I was missing the pineapple chunks.
Which brings me to my Pantheon Cocktail Theory. Have we discussed the Cocktail Pantheon? Surely I’ve mentioned it. (And yes, Skitt, I’m calling you Shirley.) Ted’s Cocktail Pantheon consists of a select group of classics that tower above the field, majestic creatures roaming the Boozehound Serengeti. The list of drinks I merely enjoy is far broader, of course, but the Pantheon derives from a much more elite definition than simply “what will Ted throw down his gullet?” Any old hobo can satisfy that question. These cocktails are time-tested, delicious and — not at all coincidentally — straightforward. It’s hard to enjoy something on a frequent, consistent basis that cannot be conjured up out of the relatively basic sundries of any well-equipped household, by which I mean, gin, whiskey, lemon, bar syrup, soda, and the like.
Ted’s Pantheon Cocktail Theory — which may be upgraded to an Axiom; I haven’t decided yet — holds that a Pantheon cocktail must consist of (a) no more than four ingredients, excluding plain water or ice, but including soda or garnish; and (2) no preparation more complex than slicing fruit or grating a little citrus skin. In addition, it must be so essentially wonderful in nature that I consume one or more at least every other month. This is science, people!
It’s an exclusive club, and not just any simple drink can qualify. Your brother’s “invention” of Heaven Hill scotch and cough syrup isn’t Pantheon, though I’m not saying I wouldn’t drink it. On the other end of the spectrum, perfectly heavenly wonders like single malt scotch with a dash of Stirling spring water are not included, since they are not technically “cocktails.” Straight alcohol drinks have their own Pantheon, up the road on the cul-de-sac where the Cullihans live.
So what mixed drinks are in the Pantheon? Some will be obvious, but it is Ted’s Cocktail Pantheon:
— Dry Martini (easiest call on the planet): gin, dry vermouth, olives/or/cocktail onions.
— Vesper: gin, vodka, Lillet blanc, lemon peel.
— Old Fashioned: bourbon, bitters, bar syrup, cherry.
— Whiskey Sour: bourbon, lemon juice, bar syrup, orange slice.
— Scotch & Soda: um, yeah.
— Manhattan: rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters.
— Sunny Side Up: gin and orange juice, mixed like a screwdriver. (I prefer the taste of gin mixed in with the OJ because the gin’s botanicals mingle well with citrus. Also, as noted by the great Kingsley Amis, vodka is generally for people who don’t actually like to drink. As noted by Ted Boynton, if you subsist on the Skinny White Bitch, i.e., vanilla vodka and Diet Coke, you may still sit next to me.)
How does all of this relate to American Gangster? As usual, it has to do with Mrs. socalled’s finding creative ways to torment me. For reasons that are utterly inexplicable, she has taken a shine to The Departed, another crime drama whose primary distinction (among many) from American Gangster is that The Departed isn’t very good. Mrs. socalled latches on to certain movies that she re-views like J. Edgar Hoover examining the Zapruder film (including the dress and high heels), among which are The Bourne Identity, Terms of Endearment, and Das Boot. [/sigh]
I detest The Departed, partially out of backlash, but also because it represents Marty’s Lifetime Achievement Award and signifies everything that is wrong with the Academy Awards. The Departed is a derivative, complicated mishmash of ham-a-lam-a-ding-dong famous actors (Jack Nicholson — gah!), double crosses, bad Bahhh-stuhn accents, and a ridiculously contrived love story, leavened with a couple of very enjoyable performances (Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone). It’s the Singapore Sling of cinema: way too much going on, far too little effect.
In contrast, American Gangster, while no Scotch & soda, is still a much simpler endeavor and a much more successful one. Two parts Denzel Washington, two parts Russell Crowe, mix well with gritty 70s NYC crime story, and garnish with Southeast Asian flora of your choice. The plot is intense and riveting and needs no recap here. If you haven’t seen American Gangster and harbor the least interest in Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, or Serpico-type cop movies, then you owe it to yourself to give this a look. It’s brilliant.
(Alas, the one thing the films share is a screamingly unnecessary romantic subplot, though at least American Gangster tries to cram it in as character backlighting. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d be happy to have Carla Gugino dress me up like Raggedy Andy and ride me around the kitchen swatting my ass with a baking spoon. But under these circumstances — specifically, providing a completely superfluous “humanizing” element as Crowe’s put-upon wife — I could have done without the Gugino.)
Like a Manhattan, American Gangster depends on the right blend of face-punch rye and silky smooth vermouth — a slug of Russell Crowe and neat shot of Denzel Washington does the trick. I take it Denzel’s brilliant body of work needs no extensive discussion here? He also seems like a genuinely worthwhile human being. Russell Crowe, on the other hand … I’m still coming to terms with my absolute adoration for his work. The phone-throwing, the bar-brawling, the egregiously Dog-Star-esque participation in a celebrity vanity band with an overly cute name … there’s really no excuse. In interviews and other, calmer accounts of his personal life, however, he seems like a decent guy.
Oh, yeah, and there’s this: Aside from American Gangster, Russell Crowe has played starring roles in L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and 3:10 to Yuma; and that’s leaving out the lesser successes I actually hold more dear than the commercial and critical smashes, films likeCinderella Man, Master & Commander, and The Sum of Us, in which Russell Crowe plays a tender gay man. Yes indeedy. Roman general, schizophrenic genius, tough cop, nerdy scientist, Victorian ship’s captain, pugilist, outlaw … and loving gay son. Jesus jackrabbit Christ this guy is good. Yes, there are some dogs on his resumé, but he’s one of very few actors for whom a film automatically gets a look from me just because he’s in it. The trailer for A Good Year looked awful, and the film was, of course, awful. But Russell Crowe gets a test screening beeyatch. (Mini-review: A Good Year blows.)
So, of course, out of American Gangster and The Departed, which one does the missus latch on to like the last gimlet at a baby shower? Every time I come back from taking the goddamn dogs out, there she is, propped up in bed, watching Jack Nicholson wax rhapsodic about “tha mahhhhsh.” But then, she does take joy in the small sadisms; I’m pretty sure the whole thing is designed to torture me. One time a junior associate at her firm implied that Mrs. socalled might be on the wrong side of forty. That poor jackass is now litigating parking tickets for Alaskan furmongers who couldn’t move their truck because a bear was sleeping on top of it. She also likes to make me fold the fitted sheets. That sort of thing.
One time we were having dinner with friends, and I got the set-up of a lifetime for a joke I’d wanted to roll out since puberty. “So, if you ever got a tattoo, what kind would it be?” said my friend. Ha! I responded proudly that I wanted to get elephant ears, one on the front of each hip and thigh. (Wait for it … wait for it …)
Ever helpful, Mrs. socalled averred it would be more realistic to get donkey ears — not too big, of course — suggesting an aardvark.
How well the pairing held up: Not well. After one drink I poured out the Singapore Sling and moved to neat rye whiskey with an ice-cold St. Paulie Girl behind it, which I highly recommend.
Tastes like: Gin and fruit juice, with some orange thrown in. If you’re ever tempted, just order “gin and OJ, hold the knife and glove.”
Overall rating: Eight out of ten phones to the bellboy’s head; I’ll take the weight for the Singapore Sling.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.