Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mystic Pizza (1988)

Dir. Donald Petrie
Starring: Annabeth Gish, Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio

There is a pizza restaurant in the eastern Connecticut port town of Mystic. It’s name? Mystic Pizza. Cool name, huh? A woman called Amy Jones certainly thought so. She liked the name so much that she wrote a movie of the same name, based around the establishment.

Actually, little happens in the pizzeria itself. There is a subplot about the secret ingredients that Leona (Conchita Ferrell) puts in her traditional Portuguese pizza (who knew?) that won over local television food critic ‘The Fireside Gourmet’ (Louis Turenne), but that is all. However Mystic Pizza is the work place for three very different girls of Portuguese descent. Kat, aka ‘Saint Katharine, (Annabeth Gish) is the good girl, saving up to fund her astronomy studies at Connecticut’s prestigious Yale University. Her sister Daisy (Julia Roberts) is the feisty pool-playing man-hunting good-time girl. And their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor) is having commitment issues about marrying her long-time boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio). It is the lives and loves of these three girls that form the storyline of the film. All three, to a certain extent, try to break out of the roles to which they have been assigned. Kat gradually starts to fall for an architect called Tim (Wiliam R. Moses) whose daughter she has been babysitting, leading to her doing something not at all saintly with him on Hallowe’en. Daisy knows her reputation but is despairing of ever escaping from small-town Mystic where she’ll be “slingin’ pizza for the rest of my life”.  Yet even when she commences a relationship with preppy Porsche-driving WASP boy Charles Gordon Windsor Jr (Adam Storke) she is not afraid to run the relationship on her terms. JoJo loves Bill but is running scared of marriage. Of these three relationships, one ends in wedding bells, one in a tentative future, and one with a very final goodbye.

A slice of '80s heaven: Kat (Annabeth Gish),
Daisy (Julia Roberts) and Jojo (Lili  Taylor)

Tim is the cultured older man who proves to be the most incredible coward, contributing towards Kat’s college fund to try to make himself feel better. Charles is damaged goods. He is persistently unable to finish what he starts, whether it is loud-mouthed darts-related bets in small-town dives, a law degree, or a relationship. In one scene he takes Daisy to dinner with his folks, and then explodes when a comment is made about the Portuguese. However Daisy, the “poor dumb Portugee”, is smarter than he thinks; she twigs that he is using her to get at his father. She calls him on this, gives him a dressing-down and storms off. Of the three it is fisherman Bill who is the most honest. He may not have had the advantages of the other two, but he knows his heart. “I’m telling you I love you” he tells Jojo at one point “and all you love is my dick! Do you know how that makes me feel?” He is the one pushing to make an honest girl woman out of his girlfriend.

The three girls rely on the support and understanding of the others, even though there is obvious tension between Kat and Daisy. Daisy sarcastically comments “Kat, such a good girl. Where did we go wrong with her sister Daisy?” She later tells her mother that she will never be going to Yale; her mother sadly says that that doesn’t matter, she just wants her daughter to be careful. Daisy taunts her sister: “Daddy boffing the babysitter is a really old story Kat, it happens all the time!” In return Kat suggests that Daisy would be more honest if she just charged for sex. Yet when Kat comes home crying after Tim paid her off it is her sister who comforts her. Meanwhile Lili has an amazing monologue where she thanks them and Leona for their advice after Bill breaks up with her.

There is a strong local Portuguese community (with surnames like Arujo, Barboza, Montijo and Valsouano), who work the restaurants, run the fishing fleet and prepare the seafood (the Arujo’s refrigerator is stuffed with lobster). They are religious (Lili’s parents have a hideous light-up Jesus in the front room and Mrs Arujo worries that Daisy is not dating a Catholic) and family-oriented (as soon as the wedding ceremony is complete they are asking when a baby can be expected). They have Portuguese songs and dances at their weddings. And they have their own traditional Portuguese pizzas. They are seen as more honest than the richer WASP inhabitants of Connecticut, whether they are Yale-educated architects like Tim, college drop-outs slumming it like Charles, or snobs with servants like the rest of the Windsors.

So… romance, relationships, supportive galpals, disappointing menfolk? Yes, I suppose it is a chick-flick, but that should not stop any fellers from watching it. The writing is good and the characters are not just one-dimensional caricatures. There is a humanity in the way they are written and the way they are acted. The three leads in particular really earn their billings here. All three went on to have successful careers. Though when the film was later re-released it was Julia Roberts’s face that got the big close-up on the DVD cover. This is unfair as all three deserve equal billing. One other star to get their first big screen break in the fiolm is Matt Damon, who gets one line as Charles's brother.

What have I learnt about Connecticut?
Well, it was nice to get out east away from New York. Connecticut has historic seafaring towns that attract the tourists – like Mystic. This sees an uneasy balance being struck between the tourists, students, and owners of summer homes that once belonged to hoary old Victorian sea captains, and those who still work behind the scenes in the fishing fleets and hospitality industries – many of whom are of Portuguese descent. There is a thriving Portuguese community down by the lobster fisheries. The lobsters, clams and other seafood alone make a visit look appealing. Interestingly Yale seems to be a very local college. People from Connecticut go to Yale, and those who have been to Yale don’t seem to leave Connecticut.

Can we go there?
This is the first place we have seen in Connecticut that would seem to warrant a trip. Mystic is well geared towards tourists, as we have seen from the film. Mystic Seaport is a maritime museum complete with sailing ships and a recreated 19th century seafaring village. It also has the Treworgy Planetarium – which is where Kat is shown working as a commentator in the film. Mystic also has an aquarium. And one of the town’s newer attractions is a humble pizzeria at 56 West Main Street by the name of Mystic Pizza

Looking at the photos of the real-life restaurant one cannot help but notice that it looks nothing like the version in the film. This is correct. Mystic is too touristy, so shooting was done on in Stonington, a few miles further east. The Connecticut state authorities have handily put together a map showing where many of the locations can be found. The town has its own branch of Mystic Pizza, though the location of the fictional restaurant is above the Garbo Lobster Company at 56 Water Street. Stonington's Peg Leg Pub is now Zack's Bar and Grill. Further east again and the girls’ family homes are located on Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck, right by the Rhode Island border. Over that border in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the Misquiamicut Club was used for the country club where Daisy dumps a load of fish into Charles’s Porsche. Tim’s house is also in Watch Hill, on Breen Road. In fact only the scene on the bascule bridge where the girls see that Bill has renamed his boat ‘Nympho’ was filmed in Mystic. I found a pretty good website that details all the various locations.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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