Feast of the Seven Fishes (2018)

Feast of the Seven Fishes is a low budget, '80s-period Christmas dramedy based on a graphic novel written thirteen years earlier by the movie's writer/director. The year of release seems to be up for debate - I'm going with 2018, based on when it appears to have first debuted in festivals, as opposed to its official release a year later.

The movie seems to have been fairly well-received critically - it's at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, albeit with only 16 reviews. I'll put my cards on the table now and say this is going to be a dissenting opinion. I'm not sure if critics are seeing something I'm missing or simply grading on a curve, but Lindsay and I had a hard time sitting through this one. It was partially salvaged by some great character work around minor characters and what I assume is an accurate representation of an Italian-American tradition, but that wasn't enough to make up for the movie's shortcomings.

Which brings us to the plot and premise. While the titular feast features heavily in the movie, the story instead revolves around Tony, a young artist torn between a sense of responsibility towards his family and a desire to see the world. Tony was just accepted into a prestigious art school, a fact he's keeping from his family, who he assumes would be horrified if he abandoned the family business.

All of this is shown to us when he opens the letter from the school. It's then explicitly told to us when he has a conversation with his best friend, Angelo. Yeah, this isn't one of those movies that trust the audience to keep up.

Meanwhile, Beth, a wealthy college student, is home for the holidays. Her boyfriend of two years was supposed to be with her, but instead blew off the trip to go skiing. He tries to convince her to meet him at the ski resort, but she gets angry because he broke a promise. She fights with her boyfriend over the phone then fights with her mother in person. Her mom takes her boyfriend's side, because he's extremely rich, and she wants her daughter to marry into wealth. More wealth than they already have, I guess, since their house looks as though it's worth at least a million. Beth storms off to hang out with her friend.

Should I take a minute and address the fact a movie from 2018 is hinging a major plot point on a trope that's been a cliche for a century? Don't worry - it gets worse.

Tony and Beth are introduced through their friends, and they immediately hit it off. Things get complicated when Tony hears that his ex-girlfriend just took a new job and is about to start stripping. He immediately insists he needs to stop her, and his friends (Beth included) jump into the car and head to the strip club.

There are a few details you need to understand what's going on:

1. Tony's ex-girlfriend is hopelessly in love with him and is more or less stalking him.

2. Tony cares for his ex and feels responsible for her, but no longer wants to be in a relationship with her.

3. Tony's appearance at the strip club results in his ex losing her job.

4. All of this is treated like a good thing because the alternative is for her to ruin her life stripping.

5. You could literally cut every scene with the ex-girlfriend (and there are several) without impacting the central story of the movie.

So, why is this in here? As far as I can tell, the presence of the ex-girlfriend proves Tony's nobility and demonstrates a recurring theme of the movie: girls are obsessed with him. Yes, women want to sleep with Tony, but he needs more than that. He needs someone who gets him.

We'll come back to this. First, I want to address the other elephant in the room, and that's the fact it's using exotic dancing as cinematic shorthand for self-destructive behavior in a movie released in 2018.

To be fair, while the movie was made in 2018, it's set in 1983, when exotic dancing was less respected. You could argue that the movie is trying to reflect the regressive sensibilities of the time it's representing. But if that's what the director intended, he had an obligation to address those ideas. Because he didn't, the movie itself winds up feeling regressive.

Instead of being repulsed by what she saw, Beth finds all of this admirable. She falls even harder for Tony when he shows her his art studio, and she winds up staying the night.

That's not... it isn't a euphemism. They don't have sex - she literally just falls asleep on his couch. But when she's discovered the next morning by Tony's grandmother, it's an excuse for zany hijinks and an awkward introduction to his extended family culminating in her being invited to the aforementioned Feast of Seven Fishes, which she attends against her mother's wishes.

The Feast itself is one of the movie's high points, despite adding little to the story, at least until the end. After having a great time, she joins Tony outside and they start to kiss until they're interrupted by Beth's boyfriend, who...

Okay. So Beth's mother, an anti-Italian bigot, got worried her daughter was going to enjoy Christmas dinner with the family of someone she'd just met, so she called her boyfriend at the ski resort, convinced him to fly there, then drove him to Tony's grandparent's house (I have no idea how she learned the address), and arrived at precisely the same moment the two started to kiss.

This all culminates in Tony slugging her boyfriend when he calls her a slut, then Beth getting in the car with her mother for... reasons, I guess? It mainly seems like an excuse for a "Why can't you tell them what you want"?/"Why can't you?" showdown where Tony and Beth each force the other to consider how they're living their lives according to others' expectations. But if you care about the theme this far into anything this trite, you're more patient than I.

The movie resolves with Tony finally telling his family (well, some of his family) that he wants to go to art school, and they basically shrug and tell him they want him to do whatever he wants. And Beth shows up, because of course she does.

There's a lot we could dig into here, but I mainly want to talk about what I consider the movie's largest, least forgivable flaw, and that's Tony. To be fair, the actor is good in the role - this isn't his fault at all. With the possible exception of one minor character I didn't even mention, I thought the entire cast was great (and even that exception was a case of a bizarre casting decision that went maybe a little far against type).

The issues with Tony were entirely due to the writing. The character felt like a stand-in for the author, in the worst possible way. He's universally loved, respected, and desired to a degree that's unpleasant to watch. Women - specifically hot women - want to sleep with him. They become obsessed with him to the point they'll risk self-destructive behavior rather than be apart from him. And in case you fail to glean this from the plot, characters literally have conversations spelling all this out.

Tony feels like a self-insert fantasy, as if we're seeing the author describe himself and create a world where everyone sees him the way he believes he deserves to be seen. We're told he's smart and that he says smart things, but the examples we're given don't exactly sell that.

The script in general needed several more drafts. There were admittedly several great moments, but too much of the dialogue fell flat. On top of that, the parts that did work kept getting undercut by bad editing choices, but if I try and detail the pacing issues with this movie, I won't get this review done before Christmas.

Instead, I'm going to take a moment and talk about some of the things that did work. I already mentioned the cast - this movie pulled in some talented actors. And, in the case of the older actors, it actually made good use of their talents. The scenes centering around Tony's extended family were really good. They had personalities and quirks, and it was fun to watch them bicker. If the narrative had centered around them, you might be reading a very different review.

This also did a great job with the Feast. These scenes felt like a window into a Christmas Eve tradition I knew very little about. They managed to convey the sense you're sitting around the table and walking through the kitchen - these were absolutely standout moments, and - again - if that had actually been the bulk of the movie, I'd have been much happier with the product.

On a minor note, I also liked the opening credits, once I realized what they were going for. The movie opens with a montage cleverly inspired by 80's sitcoms, which is a fun way to establish the period. That would have worked better if this had a tone more evocative of those sitcoms, but still... I appreciate the effort.

Overall, though, the movie just didn't work for me. I wish it had - it's an independent film and was clearly something the director was passionate about. But I really can't recommend this to most people. Not enough of the jokes land, and not enough of the narrative feels fresh. That said, I'd be fascinated to learn what people who grew up celebrating this tradition thought.