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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

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.