Knocked Up.

Finally got around to seeing Knocked Up last night, two months after recording it off pay-per-view, and it was excellent, very funny with a sweet undertone that never turns sappy, and some excellent performances.

Knocked Up scores biggest by avoiding the Big Artificial Conflict that wrecks almost every relationship comedy. I’m going to demonstrate this by using one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, the positively fecal The Object of My Affection starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Rudd, who is also in Knocked Up plays a gay man who is roommates with Aniston’s character. They become friends. She falls in love with him. He’s still gay, but there’s some chemistry happening. She becomes pregnant (not by Rudd’s character) and wants him to help her raise the kid. Then there’s a pivotal scene in his bedroom when they’re just seconds away from a kiss … and the phone rings, and hey, whaddya know, it’s an ex-boyfriend of his who wants to get together. And that’s it – they end up apart, him with a guy, her with a guy she meets a few minutes before the end of the movie. This is horrendous writing, first because it’s just lazy to end a difficult and important scene with a deus ex machina phone call, and second because there was a much more important reason why the characters couldn’t get together – because HE WAS GAY.

Where Object and so many movies fail, Knocked Up succeeds. Yes, Alison and Ben break up, but it is an inevitable occurrence, the result of a slow build of tension that explodes in a hilarious, foul-mouthed screaming match that starts in a car and ends in a gynecologist’s office. It also serves as a pivotal plot point that gets Ben to grow up, which, frankly, I’d been waiting the whole movie for him to start doing. And, most importantly, Apatow picks up the movie’s pace after the split, avoiding the typical slowdown in most relationship comedies that comes after the writer has forced the two people apart and now needs to spend a solid 45 minutes showing us how miserable they are without each other. We don’t see Alison or Ben miserable; we see both of them acting responsibly, and we see Ben doing something about his half of the problem. What a decidedly grown-up concept.

The main actors were all very good. I’ve been a Katherine Heigl (Alison) fan since “Roswell” – the season-three hairstyle sold me, since you can’t pull that look off if you’re not flat-out gorgeous – so I didn’t need much convincing on that one. Seth Rogan (Ben) was outstanding as a very unlikeable guy who, it turns out, is more clueless than jackass. (Speaking of which, I don’t get the criticism that the movie is “sexist,” which Heigl herself even intimated in a recent Vanity Fair interview. Ben starts out as a goofball and a ne’er-do-well, he’s depicted as reaching in the relationship until the very end of the film, and his friends are socially retarded. Alison’s successful, smart, and funny. This is sexist … how?) Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd are hilarious as a vaguely demented married couple whose relationship is slowly disintegrating under the weight of two kids and his busy job; Rudd’s scene in the Vegas hotel room with Rogan was one of the film’s highlights. And Harold Ramis has a great cameo as Ben’s father.

The movie does have some missed notes and unevenness. Joanna Kerns as Alison’s psychobitch-mom-from-hell was jarring, and she appears just once as a sort of comic foil and doesn’t resurface until the closing credits. The Asian doctor was just as one-dimensional before a jarring character change near the film’s end – it’s like he was there for the joke, but then Apatow needed him to be more normal, so he altered the character. In general, Apatow uses his one- and two-scene characters as sharply-defined props to create slightly forced comic moments, when his specialty is building comedy from real situations. I thought ending the movie with a scene where Alison sees the nursery Ben set up would have been perfect, but that’s just me being sentimental. And I wish that the idea that Ben is a skilled handler of people – he wins two interpersonal negotiations near the film’s end by using conciliatory tactics in one and firm tactics in the other – had been explored a little more earlier in the film. If it was a latent skill, fine, but show us a glimpse earlier on rather than having him emotionally tone-deaf in all of these situations where he’s with Alison and says the absolute worst possible thing.

If you can handle some vulgarity and don’t mind marijuana usage as a running gag, Knocked Up is worth the rental. But if you’re married with kids, it becomes a must-see, because there’s another layer of humor that you’ll get that the non-parents in the audience just won’t quite appreciate.

The Age of Innocence.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence made her the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now known as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), with good reason, as Wharton uses the classic love triangle formula to expose the darker side of the seemingly idyllic Gilded Age of the late 1800s while also incorporating some savage wit. It’s also in the Novel 100 (#61), the Modern Library 100 (#58), and the Radcliffe 100 (#42), although it was published two years too early for TIME‘s top 100 list.

Age‘s main character is Newland Archer, a young lawyer in the social elites of New York in the 1870s who is about to marry the pretty but dull May Welland, a socially acceptable match and one he doesn’t question until he meets her cousin, the Countess Olenska. The Countess has just returned to the United States after fleeing a disastrous marriage in Europe to a man who used her ill (although his exact crime is never defined, I inferred that he was beating her), and Archer finds himself drawn to her in an obsession laden with sexual overtones. He ultimately has to choose between his engagement and then marriage to a woman he likes, but for whom he has no passion, and the woman who ignites his passion but for whom he’d have to abandon his family and status while flying in the face of all social conventions.

For a novel built around a serious idea, the choices people have to make between conforming to societal norms and following the riskier paths that offer a chance for greater happiness, Wharton manages to incorporate some bitterly sarcastic humor.

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English- speaking audiences.

No one is spared, but Wharton has a particular enmity for the small-mindedness of the pro-propriety set, who conspire first to send Countess Olenska back to her husband and later to keep her and Newland apart.

On top of the love triangle and its underlying story about choice, The Age of Innocence reflects the social upheaval of the interwar period in which it was written. May Welland represents the longing for the pre-war period, a true age of innocence in which the U.S. hadn’t been embroiled in a major conflict since the Civil War, and prosperity and opulence seemed guaranteed. The Countess represents the future, from the vantage point of the end of World War I, from America’s increasing involvement with foreign nations to the uncertain economic outlook (the book was written in 1920, before the great bull run of the 20s) to the changing cultural and sexual mores of the time. Wharton comes down clearly in favor of the forward-looking viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that Newland and the Countess live happily ever after.

The Age of Innocence is comfortably in the top 20-25 books I’ve read, more evidence that the most fertile period for the American novel was the time between the wars. It’s an outstanding marriage – pun intended – of wicked humor and social commentary, with a simple plot made interesting through strong characterization.

Chat today.

FYI, I’ve got a 1 pm chat today over at the Four-Letter.

Sugar addiction.

So the American sugar cartel is at it again, trying to get the government to prop up their industry, which should long since have either disappeared or shrunk into niche status. For those of you who don’t know, Americans pay three times the world market price for sugar because the government restricts sugar imports – true corporate welfare. NAFTA was supposed to put an end to this bullshit, but the sugar lobby is now trying to get Congress to do an end-run around the free trade agreement by forcing the government to buy Mexican sugar imports to keep them off of U.S. shelves.

That pisses me off to begin with, but here’s the thing that should bother everyone: This asinine, smoothawleyrific policy is exacerbating the rising rates of heart disease in the United States. Mass-market food manufacturers, notably the soft drink companies, use high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener – even though anyone with a functioning tongue can tell you it doesn’t taste as good as sugar does – because it’s significantly cheaper than real sugar. This makes the corn lobby happy, but the problem for consumers is that fructose has a major downside: It reduces the levels of two enzymes critical to heart health,, leading to enlarged hearts and increasing the likelihood of heart disease. A diet high in fruits isn’t likely to cause this problem, but a diet high in high-fructose corn syrup – you know, corn syrup that is HIGH IN FRUCTOSE – is. What’s the better course of action: Using government money to keep Mexican sugar off the market, gouging American consumers while raising heart disease rates; or letting the market dictate prices and getting sugar back into soft drinks?

The pride of Smithtown …

Northport man charged in $68M scam

I’ve known the defendant since elementary school – he graduated from high school a year ahead of me. Never in a million years would I have pegged him as smart enough to pull off (temporarily, at least) a multi-million dollar fraud scheme.

Ryan Howard, again.

Bill Conlin, fun and fact-free!, weighs in on Ryan Howard:

There is one set of numbers, however, that fails to match the monetary implications raised by his stature as a power hitter – the numbers on his paycheck.

Conlin appears willfully ignorant of how baseball salaries work. Ryan Howard is eligible for arbitration this year as a Super-Two player, and he will and should be paid like a first-time eligible player. Conlin is making the argument that the Phillies should give Howard a long-term deal that pays him closer to his market value – in other words, he’s saying that the Phillies will be better off if they voluntarily pay Howard more than baseball’s economic system says he should get. Conlin points

You don’t need an economics degree and an MBA to realize that voluntarily overpaying for your inputs is a rather simple recipe for failure. For all the complaining you hear about baseball’s economic system, it is heavily stacked in the teams’ favor: Player salaries are below market value for the first six years of major league service, and for most players, that six-year period will include some or most of their peak years. In Howard’s case, because he reached the majors so late, the six-year period will include ALL of his peak years. By the time baseball’s economic structure allows Howard to be a free agent, he’ll be 32 years old, and given his profile as a hitter and body type, he’ll be paid a salary commensurate with his peak-years production during his decline phase, assuming that he becomes a free agent.

But hey, should we be surprised? Conlin’s own employer pays him the top salary at the paper plus his pension, and his peak years are behind him, too.

Northanger Abbey film.

Now that’s more like it. The new movie version of Austen’s Northanger Abbey was spot-on, very faithful to the original novel with some excellent performances.

The plot of the novel, well preserved in the movie, is the simplest of Austen’s canon. Catherine Mansfield is a teenaged girl living in an English country village who loves to read the Gothic romances popular at the time, and who uses those novels as a substitute for the life experience she lacks. A wealthy couple offers to bring her to Bath with them for a few months, where she meets two suitors, Mr. Tilney and Mr. Thorpe, and becomes fast friends with Mr. Thorpe’s sister, Isabella, who is in love with Catherine’s brother James. One of her suitors is good, and one is bad. There’s a misunderstanding over her relationship with the wealthy couple. And that’s almost all of it. It’s a trifle compared to the character studies of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but it’s witty and sweet.

This adaptation – I only know of one other, which I haven’t seen – hews quite closely to the plot of the novel, keeping the characters all true to Austen’s writing. Felicity Jones is excellent as Catherine and it doesn’t hurt that she looks like a cuter version of Natalie Portman. Carey Mulligan – also pretty darn cute, and someone had fun with her in wardrobe – was superb as the superficial and often condescending Isabella. And unlike last week’s version of Persuasion, this film allows its scenes to develop rather than rushing us from one spot to the next to try to cram the book into 90 minutes of air time.

Next up: A new take on Mansfield Park, my least favorite Austen novel, due in no small part to its priggish heroine, Fanny Price. There was a 1999 film version starring the underrated Frances O’Connor as Fanny, and while it was a good movie, it was only loosely based on the novel, incorporating some elements from Austen’s own life (using her letters as a basis) and also just flat-out changing some things around. This upcoming version is reported to be more faithful to the text – the screenplay was written by Andrew Davies, who wrote the screenplay for the new Northanger Abbey version and the screenplay for the definitive 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries – which strikes me as a mixed blessing.

A simple pasta dish.

Sausage and mushroom pasta with pecorino romano – one pot and one skillet. Moderate knife skills required, and I’ll assume we all know that pasta should be cooked until it is al dente and no further, on penalty of death.

1 onion (or one small onion), diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into 1″ strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper
15-20 cremini mushrooms, quartered
1 pound fresh chicken/turkey sausage, Italian-flavored, casings removed
1 pound dried pasta (farfalle, rigatoni)
¾ cup to 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1. Cook pasta according to package directions in heavily salted water. Drain, reserving one cup of the cooking liquid, returning the pasta to the cooking pot. Ideally, you want the pasta to be done just after the following process is completed.
2. In 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet, sweat onion and red bell pepper until translucent and just thinking about browning, 7-8 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper and cook 30-60 seconds more.
3. Move pan contents to edges. Add mushrooms to center (using more olive oil if required) and cook until they release their liquid and brown slightly, 5-10 minutes.
4. Move mushrooms to pan edges and add sausage, cooking thoroughly. I like to let the meat sit when I first add it so that it browns on one side, then I break it up into small bits and sauté it.
5. Add the skillet’s contents and the cheese to the pasta with ½ cup of the cooking liquid, stirring quickly to form a sauce using the residual heat from the pasta and the liquid. If the resulting sauce is too dry, add some of the remaining cooking liquid just until the pasta is coated and wet, but do not add so much that you get a pool of liquid on the bottom of the pot. Add a few turns of fresh black pepper and serve.

NFL picks.

Usual disclaimer – I am not much of a football fan, let alone any kind of expert, and I am not placing any actual bets on these games – but here are my picks:

San Diego (+14) over NEW ENGLAND – New England to win
GREEN BAY (-7) over New York

I’m leaning towards the under on both games – anywhere from 46.5-48 on the first game, and 40.5-41.5 on the second.

Disneyworld eats (second trip).

So before I get into new places, let me reiterate how much I like Raglan Road. We went twice, and I had the shepherd’s pie and Guinness both times, while my wife and I split the bread-and-butter pudding once. Other dishes I can recommend: The Guinness and onion banger is delicious, served over mashed potatoes and topped with a ladle-full of their beef stew, making it ridiculously hearty; their chicken and sage banger is also very good and a bit lighter than the pork banger, plus it’s a more reasonable portion than the prior dish; and the “pie in the sky” (chicken and mushroom pie) is hearty without being heavy, although it could never reach the heights of a proper steak and mushroom pie. We ordered a side of chips at lunch, and they appeared to be hand-cut. One caution: The Dunbrody Kiss dessert may sound delightful, but the cornflake layer on the bottom turns into a chewy, icky mush, and ruined the dish for me the one time we ordered it back in ’06.

Other than Raglan Road and a couple of breakfasts at Boma, we ate in the parks this time around. Most pleasant surprise was Flame Tree BBQ in Animal Kingdom; it’s real Q, complete with pink smoke ring. They offer pulled pork, shredded beef, ribs (St. Louis), and smoked chicken. My wife went with the pork sandwich; the meat had a mild smoke flavor and was just a little bit dry (unavoidable given the quantities they must smoke and serve). I went with the ribs, which were a little tough but were covered with spicy-sweet bark, the most glorious part of barbecued ribs in my book. The baked beans that came on the side had a smoky molasses flavor, but the corn muffin was nothing more than mushy corn cake. It’s easily one of the best values anywhere on the property.

The Prime Time Café at Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) had good food, but was way overpriced. We both went with the pot roast, which was very nicely done, with most of the fat cooked out and plenty of well-browned surface area; it sat on top of some ultra-smooth mashed potatoes that served mostly to soak up whatever ran out of the pot roast. At $17 for lunch, it’s a bit dear, and large portions at lunch aren’t a big plus to me. They do make a good chocolate shake, though.

Get the smoked turkey leg if you have to eat at Magic Kingdom, or maybe the tuna on multi-grain bread at Columbia Harbour House. The Kingdom really doesn’t offer much for full-service options, and their quick-service selection isn’t great, either. The Sleepy Hollow stand, tucked in a corner in Liberty Square, has funnel cakes and Mickey waffles, two guilty pleasures.

We ate our way around Epcot, as usual, but hit a few new places this year:

  • The Biergarten in the Germany pavilion, offering a dinner buffet at $27 per adult (not including booze). Dinner buffets don’t usually thrill me, but the selection at this one was excellent, and our server, from northern Germany, told me that most of what was on the tables was authentic German food. The various sausages were all fantastic, as was the warm German potato salad (cider vinegar, mustard, and bacon … seriously). The salmon in dill sauce was solid, although I’d bet I got a piece that hadn’t been sitting under the lamps for long. The beef roulade tasted great but had dried out, while the pork schnitzel (breaded and fried!) was outstanding. Desserts were a disappointment. Live music is part of the appeal, with your typical goofy Disney humor.
  • The Rose and Crown in the England pavilion served straightforward versions of some of what you’d find at Raglan Road. We went twice; I wasn’t blown away by the pot roast, which was fattier than the one I had at Prime Time, but the bangers and mash were excellent, with outstanding color on the sausages. My sister got the fish and chips the time she came with us, and the breading on the fish was ultra-crisp and golden brown. Guinness on tap here is a bit colder than I’d like.
  • The San Angel Inn in Mexico was a disappointment. The menu seems less geared towards authentic cooking than other Epcot restaurants, and the prices here were out of line with 1) what I expect at a Mexican restaurant and 2) the quality of the product. I ordered the pescado a la ranchera, seared tilapia served over rice with an avocado cream sauce and roasted poblanos. The tilapia was quasi-blackened; the fish was almost certainly frozen at some point in its post-life life. I did like the avocado cream sauce, which was about as smooth as soft-serve ice cream.
  • We did the “princess dining” dinner at Askershus in the Norway pavilion. It’s steep at $29 per adult, but you are paying for the characters (your kid gets a photo with one of the princess characters, and the remaining princesses walk around and visit all the tables). The food was very good, probably the best of any place we hit at Epcot. Dinner starts with a koldbordt buffet of cold cuts, smoked fish (the smoked salmon was ridiculous, ultra-smooth with a sweet smoky flavor), and salads. For the entrée, I went with the baked salmon with mustard; I was disappointed that the mustard was yellow mustard, which I think is kind of nasty, but the salmon was perfectly cooked and the potato pancakes underneath it were fresh and crispy. My wife went with the braised pork shank, a huge portion where the meat just slid right off the bone. Dessert is family-style, with three desserts coming on one plate: a “rice cream” (pudding) with sweetened strawberries, a cappuccino cheesecake that tasted more like mousse than cheesecake, and a “princess cake” with a white chocolate mousse. All three were delicious. Note that this restaurant’s menu appears to change seasonally.
  • We hit the quick-service restaurant at the Morocco pavilion, the Tangierine Café. The “lamb wrap” was a gyro in all but name, with very juicy lamb shaved to order and served on a hot fresh flatbread with just a little bit of yogurt sauce (can I call it tzatziki if it’s not a Greek restaurant?). It’s a bit messy to eat while you walk, but either it was delicious or I was starving, because I inhaled the thing.

Finally, I can’t discuss Epcot without mentioning the Patisserie in the France pavilion. Their chocolate mousse is dark and very smooth; I can’t imagine that they’re making a true mousse with an egg white foam, a labor-intensive and fussy preparation, but that sure as heck is what it tastes like. Their éclairs are solid, with chocolate pastry cream inside, and the strawberry tart has a hard shortbread crust filled with sweetened whipped cream. I just wish you could get a proper espresso somewhere around there, but the only coffee they serve is Nescafe.