Posted: 12/01/2005

 

A Night at Sophie’s

(2004)

by Ben Beard



Hanging out with the boys during the pre-wedding blues.


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The night before his best friend Tony’s wedding, Harold, the best man, struggles with the moral burden of delivering the dreaded toast. Complicating matters, he’s in love with his best friend’s fiancé, Nancy .

Harold spends most of his evenings at Sophie’s, a local bar. His circle of friends is small. There’s George, the cantankerous cynic who likes to place bets on his friends’ catastrophes, and Johnny, a comedic Quixote pinning his hopes and dreams on getting one of his inventions on the Home Shopping Network. Behind the bar, Artie watches over the seedy little joint, while his wife, the owner, calls him from the upstairs apartment every fifteen minutes. And Harold, the lumpy, down on his luck protagonist, waits and wonders as the nights pass him by. The men in Sophie’s are chubby, overgrown boys, irresponsible and playfully lascivious, suffering from the idle boredom of impending middle-age.

The slow, boring night of sitting at the empty bar begins to take on meaning when Johnny reveals that he has a new invention, and a meeting with a HSN representative. To pass the time, they play pool, they argue, they put old records on the aging jukebox. A careful revealing of relationships ensues, all the while keeping the pace light and snappy.

Waiting for Tony to appear, Harold learns from George and Johnny that the night before, Tony had gone home with a stripper. Harold, ever the romantic, feels the marriage is spoiled, that Tony doesn’t deserve the happiness of marriage to a woman like Nancy —a woman he’s been in love with since high school.

When Nancy shows up looking for Tony, Harold begins to buckle from the weight of responsibility. Should he tell Nancy that her fiancée has cheated? Should he interfere? And when will he tell her how he feels?

Balancing New Jersey ‘s rough-hewn mannerisms with the fluffy romantic sincerity of the old Hollywood musicals, A Night at Sophie’s offers a simple and touching film, affecting and moving like a Bruce Springsteen song; the tonality is just right. Take the curse words out and you have a throwback—a casual, pleasant, meandering movie, a sort of low-grade Preston Sturges, or an Ed Burns before he made the leap to mainstream Hollywood. Or perhaps John Hughes, back on the cheap, following his hapless high schoolers who have all grown up.

The film hides its low budget well, feeling “local” rather than cheap. The made-for-television visuals hold up well, especially because the script can bear it. The movie’s strengths lie in its resolute and unquestioning sense of self. It has no pretensions and thus can revel in the tropes of the romantic comedy. It doesn’t try to do too much; it’s lean and uncomplicated, two things most films are too insecure to be. And it feels dated in just the right way.

The night wears on, as Harold grapples with his own feelings while weighing his responsibility to his best friend. Johnny waits for the HSN representative; George continues to play pool. It’s one night amongst thousands, hanging there at Sophie’s neighborhood bar, and the viewer feels welcome at one of the many empty stools.

At its worst moments it falls for old-hat clichés and at times tries a little too hard, but at its best A Night at Sophie’s is a very nice movie, full of sentimental morality and simple, feel-good sweetness, refreshingly assuming the best and not the worst of people. The filmmaker’s affection for the characters—and people in general—shines through.

It’s all a little silly, a little hackneyed, and a little hokey, but the film has the courage to be sweet when it could be mean and endearing when it could be fractious, celebrating the petty aspirations of its characters instead of mocking them. Beneath the gruff dialogue, there’s a gentle touch. And for a few moments here and there, it feels like magic.

Ben Beard has a Ph.D in Eastern philosophies and works as a bouncer in a small-town bar. He recently trimmed his mullet.



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