' ' Cinema Romantico: Fishes

Wednesday, August 16, 2023


“Fishes” begins with sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) and brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) standing on the front lawn of the home of their mother Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis), smoking cigarettes beneath a slate grey Chicago sky, eventually joined by their brother Carmy (Jeremy Allen White). The wreath on the door glimpsed over their shoulder betrays that this is Christmas, a time of family and togetherness, yet here are all the Berzatto siblings, trading notes on family members, what to do and not to do in order to survive, momentarily finding salvation and strength in one another. Typically, such a scene would arrive at the midway point as a release valve but putting it first renders as akin to the scene in “Crimson Tide” (1995) right before the submarine dives. Natalie, Mikey, and Carmy are steeling themselves, smoking cigarettes like Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are smoking cigars on the conning tower, essentially taking one final breath before they go back inside, close the hatch and dive.

I called it a movie there – twice, in fact – but, of course, this isn’t a movie, this is “The Bear,” a Hulu comedy-drama television series, and “Fishes” is Episode 6 from the recently dropped Season 2. Unlike most of “The Bear,” however, which tends to run in half-hour increments, “Fishes” is an hour and six minutes. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deems 40 minutes long enough for a feature film, while the Screen Actors Guild indicates it should be 60 minutes, either of which means “Fishes” qualifies, never mind how it was released. But, whatever. I’m not interested in officially, just spiritually, and though the common comp for “Fishes” has been the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts play “August: Osage County” given its similar familial fireworks, more than anything I can recall seeing in the last 20+ years, this episode of TV reminds me of a 90s indie comedy-drama. Call it part three in a totally unofficial and non-existent trilogy of 90s holiday movies – “The House of Yes,” “The Myth of Fingerprints,” and now, 25 years later, “Fishes.”

Though the episode fits seamlessly not just within Season 2 but the whole series thus far, and also functions as the impeccably bitter aperitif to the more emotionally serene Episode 7, it also works utterly unto itself. Taking place within the space of Christmas Eve afternoon and night as Donna labors to produce a Feast of the Seven Fishes, co-writers Christopher Storer (who also directed) and Joanna Calo plant myriad narrative bombs that can work independently of the show’s arc and create a lived in vibe regardless of what you do or do not know about the complicated and cacophonous Berzatto clan and Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the cousin who is not really a cousin but essentially part of the fam nevertheless. In fact, “Fishes” adds so many new characters that it kind of feels brand new even to a long-time viewer, a parade of big-name guest stars who never feel out of place because in a family of big personalities you need big personalities to play them. Carmy, meanwhile, is deliberately made to feel like an outsider within his own family, ceaselessly mocked for having deigned to show up at all, reaffirmed when a cousin (Sarah Paulson) suggests he spend time with her and her romantic partner Stevie (John Mulaney) in NYC, while Natalie’s husband Pete (Chris Witaske) appearing late with tuna casserole – the dreaded “eighth fish” – because it’s rude not to bring something hysterically demonstrates how far thoughtfulness goes in the Berzatto clan.

Of course, with “The Bear,” aesthetic and atmosphere are half the battle and that’s no different with “Fishes,” resembling “The Family Stone” running on June 11, 1980 “Goodfellas” RPMs, an unrelenting jumble of noise, between conversations that run on top of one another and a persistent soundtrack as well as the show’s signature, jittery close-ups, which here effectively bring to life the sensation of conversations as a holiday gathering you can’t escape. Aesthetically, it’s exhilarating; emotionally, it’s exhausting. When there’s a time-out, you feel it, like Richie and his pregnant wife Tiffany (Gillian Jacobs) escaping to Donna’s room. I was almost begging Storer for a wide shot here, though the tenderness between the two is enough to momentarily take the load off, a true safe harbor in this Berzatto storm, epitomized in the way Richie hangs his head on Tiffany’s shoulder, living out the expression of Lord, give me strength.

Of all the narrative bombs rigged by Storer and Calo, the biggest is Donna’s Feast, the narrative atomic bomb, evoked in the constant kitchen alarms going off and marinara splattered on the cupboards. If she intends for these Seven Fishes to bring family peace, it only causes her to come that much more unglued, something that even Stevie’s quirky, moving, glorious variation on Tiny Tim’s Bless Us, Every One toast cannot hope to salvage. No, forks in this case are harbinger of doom, not feasting, and the whole thing comes crashing down, literally, in a way I will not spoil, punctuated by the camera pushing in on Natalie, all the way in, crowding everyone else out, just leaving her rimmed in black, the way Elliott slopes her face calling to mind a portrait of the Madonna, one for whom no miracle awaits.

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