Skip to main content

What is wrong with humanity? What kind of a world do we live in?


Seinfeld
2.6: The Chinese Restaurant

The Premise

Jerry, George and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

Observational

Rating Seinfeldepisodes isn’t as easy as it looks. Most of them are pretty, pretty good so you have to use the full five stars judiciously if you’re going to properly recognise the crème de la crème. The Chinese Restaurant is one such episode. I’d been merrily amusing myself with the season so far, noting the steady increase in quality from episode to episode. And then Restaurant is served up as a gourmet feast; each mouthful is a succulent delight. Seinfeld and David ensure every line sings and every digression sparkles. It’s so stuffed with goodness, it makes the previous episodes seem comparatively underfed.

NBC really didn’t like the script because “nothing happens”, and you can see why they might think that. It’s a fairly outlandish premise (and for only the eleventh episode made, they hit their stride very early). Set in real time, and with the only glue being that they are trapped waiting for the duration, it’s a wonder that David and Seinfeld had the material to fill it out, except that when you watch it you realise there isn’t a moment of dead air or a vignette that doesn’t play. Apparently the time pressure (to get to the movie) was a sop to satisfy the studio, but the only aspect that doesn’t quite work is the convenience of Jerry bumping into a woman who works at his uncle’s office (which uncle, Leo?), the very uncle he lied to so he could go and see Plan 9 From Outer Space that evening.

ABC didn’t like the finished article either (consistent, you can give them that), and delayed showing it until later in the run. Jerry has proved charitable about their attitude; they may not have appreciated it, but they still let them make it. And it became one of the series’ defining moments.

There’s no Kramer this time, which upset Michael Richards (the original conception was that Kramer didn’t go out, although we just saw him do exactly that in The Busboy). His character is often the highlight of an episode, so it’s a strong statement of how tight The Chinese Restaurant is that you don’t miss him. The remaining trio all have multiple great moments, with George and Elaine suffering particular frustrations.

George probably has the pick of the material, as dictated by his penchant for embarrassment and self-delusion. His story about needing a poo while having sex with girlfriend Tatiana is a classic example (and one of the earliest) of the series getting away with being risqué by discussing a subject in a roundabout way. When George tells Jerry the bathroom at her house doesn’t provide enough privacy (“no buffer zone”), he doesn’t need to go into graphic detail about exploding bowels and straining noises. Indeed, the network limitations requiring them to speak around a subject result in turns of phrase much funnier than explicit language. George talks about the need to “relieve this unstoppable force”. And his reported exit is beautifully inappropriate (“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I think it would best that I left”).

His rage over the phone guy, whom he sees as rudely hogging the public phone (that’s one plotline that would go straight in the bin today), is spectacularly self-righteous and disproportionate (“What is wrong with humanity? What kind of a world do we live in?”). As ever, the fury and indignation (“I really hate this guy”) is completely diffused when the guy confronts him:

Phone Guy: Hey, sorry I took so long.
George: Oh, that’s okay. Really. Don’t worry about it.

His petty behaviour (although entirely understandable; with George it’s all about how he reacts, not that we don’t share his irritations) receives a perfect rebuke when he protests that he was ahead of the next person to pick up the phone (“Well, if you were here first, you’d be holding the phone”). Later, his miserliness comes to the fore when he opts for the smallest share of the table bribe (“I’m not going to eat that much”). But the crowning moment occurs when we learn that Bruce mistook his surname for Cartwright (“I yell “Cartwright, Cartwright”. Nobody answer”), and told Tatiana he wasn’t there.

Elaine’s on pugnacious form, railing against customers who are grateful to be given a table (“It’s enough to make you sick!”), cinema snacks (“I’d rather lick the food off the floor!”), and her own jaded attitude to eating out (“Now I just feel like a big sweaty hog, waiting for them to fill up the trough”). To top it all, she descends into her unique brand of freak-out as everyone else continually gets shown to a table (“Where am I? Is this a dream? What in God’s name is going on here?”)

Jerry is much more mild-mannered than his friends, even though he has the greater vested interest (the cinema visit is his idea). He has fun winding up Elaine, particularly when it comes to her suggestion that men are more suited to making deals with restaurateurs (“The women’s movement can’t seem to make much progress in the world of bribery, can they?”) and his tickled response to her failure to get a table by this means (“What sort of a sorry exhibition was that?”) Elaine already had a good laugh at his expense though, when he engages in a conversation with his uncle’s employee without admitting he has no idea who she is (“Definitely, I plan to. And I’m not just saying that”). This moment marks out Jerry as a polar opposite to George; instead of being flustered and wracked with nerves, Jerry exudes wry self-amusement. No one could be less flustered at a potentially embarrassing situation.

There other star is James Hong as the restaurant manager, Bruce. Hong is perhaps best known as Lo Pang in Big Trouble in Little China. His benign indifference to our desperate trio makes their vexation all the funnier. He even segues into offering relationship advice to Jerry about Elaine (“Well, actually we did date for a while, but that’s really not relevant”). And naturally, as soon as they depart the restaurant, resigned to a failure of an evening, their table is called.

Quotable

Elaine: Do you notice how happy people are when they finally get a table. They feel so special because they’ve been chosen. It’s enough to make you sick!
Jerry: Boy, you are really hungry.

George: For 50 bucks? I’d put my face in their soup and blow.

Woman: Well, if you were here first, you’d be holding the phone.
George: You know, we’re supposed to be living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilised way!

Elaine: Movie hotdogs? I’d rather lick the food off the floor.

Jerry: Who’s Cartwright?
George: I’m Cartwright!
Jerry: You’re not Cartwright.
George: Of course I’m not Cartwright!

Jerry: I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I going to make smart remarks to strangers?

Verdict:


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode Three

Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all 30 feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.

Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchi…

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?