Runs Fri., June 14–Thurs., June 20 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 92 minutes.
Early in Douglas Tirola’s documentary about the resurgence of craft cocktails, apprentice bartender Steve Schneider describes his planned vocation. Take one part mixologist, one part sage, one part rock star . . . and stir. Tirola has a diverse documentary resume, and he does a decent job of outlining the history of the bartender—from Prohibition to the present—and the genus of the cocktail through interviews with various experts in the field. This material can be somewhat dense and repetitive to newbies, but Tirola also serves the more general gin-and-tonic audience with some simple barroom drama. He does this by following two bartenders in training.
The first is Schneider, an ex-Marine with a handlebar mustache and an incredible scar haloing his face. He works at New York’s celebrated cocktail bar Employees Only. The second is Steve Carpentieri, a former banker who bought Dunville’s, a weathered watering hole in Westport, Connecticut. The two men’s lives are different in most every way, except that their destinies are both aligned with drink.
Carpentieri initially seems the spiritual center of the film, the camera returning to his beat-up little bar whenever the flashy world of Manhattan cocktail connoisseurs gets to be a bit much. It’s not. As Hey Bartender moves along, it becomes clear that high-end cocktail bars are thriving and Dunville’s is suffering. (Carpentieri glumly observes that when he types “Dunville’s” into his phone, it auto-corrects to “Downfall.”) In an attempt to save his failing bar, he attends Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the industry’s largest annual gathering, where he meets the bigwigs Tirola has been interviewing. They offer bromides. He buys a fedora. “Hopefully this will give me the clarity I need,” says Carpentieri, noting that many of the bartenders wear them. You hope he’s joking, but he doesn’t look like he is. Though a bit humiliating, it’s a very human portrait. Schneider, on the other hand, is in the thick of it, entering the event’s fastest-bartender challenge, his future seemingly assured. The stakes feel lower than for poor Carpentieri, yet Tirola gives Schneider equal weight in Hey Bartender, which leaves something of a bad aftertaste. (Note: Opening night will feature cocktail demos and a happy hour.)