"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Nice Guys Finish First

I’m a nice guy. Ask anyone who knows me. It’s true. I’m the kind of guy who’ll hold the door of a store open for a woman with a stroller, even if I’m just passing by, with no intention of going into the place myself. It’s a reflex, not even something I think about. I’m pathological about helping tourists with directions–I have to force myself not to ask it they need any help. When I see a guy with a fat wallet in his back pocket, I discreetly mention to him that the wallet is practically an invitation for a pick-pocket.

I’ve been consumed with being nice since I was a kid, because I come from a family of nice guys. The first time I became aware of this was in high school. I thought my friend Phil Provost’s older brother, who was two years older than us, was cooler than cool. One day a friend of mine, some fink, I can’t remember who, reported back to me that Phil’s brother complained about me, “All he ever says about people is, ‘Is he nice?, Are they nice?’” I felt humiliated. As if I was so shallow, so desperate for approval, that being nice was the ultimate characteristic a person could have.

The problem I’ve had with being nice is separating my true nice guy self from the one that is put-on. What I mean by that is that from a young age, I bought into the fantasy that if I’m nice enough to people, I will get my needs met. It’s a classic passive-aggressive stance–the futile attempt to get from the outside world what you can only do for yourself. So I would be extra nice, extra good, and when it wasn’t reciprocated, I would then allow myself to fly into a rage. It didn’t matter if I directed that rage at someone or, more often, at myself. I was being nice only to treated nicely in return.

Now that I’m on my way to being grown, I’ve come to recognize the difference between my genuine niceness and the kind that is a set-up. When I’m nice because it makes me feel good, no more, no less than that, then I’m being myself. When I’m being nice to get something back, I get in trouble. When I held the door open for the woman with the stroller yesterday, I did it without thinking, just as, without thinking, I immediately focused on her response. She didn’t say “Thank you.” But instead of being angry, unappreciated, snubbed, I was just happy that I did something nice that I wanted to do.

I got out of work early yesterday and decided to go to the movies. I saw a mid-afternoon matinee of “Dan in Real Life.” I’m generally not keen on chick flicks though I’ve had my moments. In high school, I remember going to see “Roxanne” (not really a chick flick but a light romantic comedy) by myself at the Ziegfield. I sat next to a strikingly beautiful woman and gawked at her as I fell for the charming story on-screen. When the movie was over, I started up a conversation with this woman, who must have been in her mid-twenties. We walked uptown about twenty blocks together–she stopped to buy cigarettes at one point and offered to buy me a pack, assuming that I smoked (I didn’t). She worked in production for MTV, said maybe she could used me for a job, and gave me her number. I remember meeting up with my father and his friends for dinner thinking I was a big shot. I never called her.

When I broke up with college girlfriend and was at the height of my suffering, my angst, I actually convinced a friend of mine to go see “Sleepless in Seattle” with me. Now, I was passionate about movies at the time, and took my opinons very seriously. Normally, I would never go see such a movie, but in my dramatic state of mascochism, I just had to suffer through a weepy. (The movie was awful, but strangely satisfying at the time, even if my friend would never forgive me for dragging him into such a mess.)

I had no such reasons to see “Dan in Real Life.” Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche, two favorites, they were enough. There were about 30 people in theater. I counted six men, including myself–a silver-haired gentleman on a date with his wife; a teenager, and another guy in his twenties, also on dates; a young black kid, the MAC, wearing an oversized NBA varisty jacket, sitting with six girls, must have been 12 or 13-years old; and a big, burly guy around my age, with a beard and a clean bald head.

Estrogen filled the room during the commercials and coming attractions, all of which featured soft-strumming guitar soundtracks. Then there was “Dan in Real Life,” (which had a precious, quasi Wes Anderson soundtrack) a movie about a man without any balls who is alternately bossed around by self-satisfied and superior women, from his preciocious daughters to his mother, who punishes him after acting-out at the family dinner table by making him do the dishes. There are no real characters in the movie, just two-demensional character-types, and so a fine cast, including Dianne Weist, John Mahoney, and even an aimable Dane Cook, is wasted. The movie talks about life being messy, but there is nothing surprising or real about anything that transpires–in fact, it is a strange (and very white), fantasy of family-life.

I kept waiting for Dan to grow a pair and stand-up for himself, like the Seth Rogan character did at the end of “Knocked Up,” when he stands up to his girlfriend, and, later, a doctor, and then his girlfriend’s sister. But it doesn’t happen. Dan just keeps taking a beating. And in the end, he has to realize what a shmuck he’s been. Oh, man, it was enough to drive me nuts.

The basic story is that Dan, a widower, with three girls, has not been able to meet a woman since his wife died four years ealier. He’s a nice guy, who tries to do the right thing, and it’s not getting him anywhere. While at a family reunion he has a chance meeting with Binocche at a used bookstore. They have coffee together and he falls for her. Trouble is, she’s in a relationship. Even worse, she’s going out with Dane Cook, Dan’s younger, playboy brother.

Dan takes beating after beating, watching his stud muffin brother with the love of his life. When it comes time for the family talent show–and there are a string of unbelievable activities the entire family enjoys, from a boys vs girls crossword puzzle competition (guess who wins?), touch football game, aerobics–Cook goes last and sings “Let My Love Open the Door.” The trouble is, he’s terribly nervous. (Cook is appealing enough, but he falls flat in this scene. I just didn’t buy him as someone so overhwhelmed with nerves that he could not perform–he is nothing if not a natural ham.) So Dan gets out his guitar and helps his brother out. “He hasn’t played since she died,” gasps one of the relatives (BANG, right in the kisser).

You can imagine how the scene unfolds. As Cook stumbles his way through the song trying to look awkward, Dan becomes increasingly vigorous and passionate. They are both singing for Binoche. It’s sappy and predictable but you never can underestimate the emotional pull of pop music. Unfortunately, the director, who has no feel for physical comedy or how to set up a scene (he botches a dance sequence in a bar, and the aerobics scene with too many edits and no clear idea of choreography), blows it. There is one two-shot of Cook and Carell singing, that immediately brought to mind that wonderful scene from “Nashville” where Keith Carridine is singing “I’m Easy,” and there are about three or four woman in the audience who believe that he is singing to them. But he is really singing to Lily Tomlin, the one woman who turns him down. When Altman cuts to Tomlin, the camera moves in on her slowly and it’s just a beautifully realized moment.

They could have directly ripped off that scene in “Dan in Real Life” and it would have worked, even if it was copied. But they didn’t. And still, as Dan begins to sing with conviction, after repressing his feelings for what seems like forever, I had tears rolling down the side of my face. I shit you not. Even as I was aware that the director was botching the whole thing up, Carell got to me. (I’ve cried a lot more easily at movies, even TV shows this year than ever before, which probably has something to do with the fact that my dad died earlier this year.)

Funny, how those things work, huh?

By the end of the movie, I had practically grown a vagina and was happy to get back to the real world. It was unseasonably balmy in New York, and the streets were already crowded with the holiday traffic. I decided to go to Fairway, which is like hitting Grand Central Station during rush hour. The day before Thanksgiving, no less. As I approached the store, an old woman, dressed nicely in a winter coat, and using a walker, was in front of me. The pedestrain traffic was logjammed, as a man with a stroller, coming from the opposite direction, tried to move passed us. As he did, a little Asian boy scooted in front of the old woman and just passed the man with the stroller. The man had to stop short. He rolled his eyes, as he balanced a bag of groceries on the stoller, as he moved passed me. I also had to stop short and I almost fell into the old lady. I touched her gently on the back to catch my balance and immediately apologized. A reflex. Being extra nice.

“What are you sorry for?” she said matter-of-factly. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Come Back, Andy

The Yankees have Mo and Jorge back, and are working on the Alex Rodriguez contract. We’d all love to see Andy Pettitte return as well. Steve Lombardi has a plan of action for Yankee fans as far as Pettite is concerned. Check it out.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy (and satiating) bird day.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver