There are moments in Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender that display an intimate understanding of why people drink in public, and it pertains, of course, to degrees of possibility. Sitting at home in front of your television on a Wednesday night with a cold bottle of Bud nestled on your crotch normally offers a limited vision of what the night may entail, but anything, theoretically, can happen in a bar: You can get into trouble, get laid, meet your future spouse, maybe even a contact who might lead to the job you’ve been chasing after forever. And a good bartender, understanding that his or her profession, like all trades that specialize in illusion, is show business, seeks to nurture this feeling of possibility.
The doc is promising and enjoyable when Tirola simply trains his camera on one of his many superstar bartenders, among them Graydon Carter and Dale DeGroff, allowing them to wax eloquent on their trade as an existential art of connection among people. They’re right, but they’re also hams, which is precisely in keeping with the mythology they’re charged with putting forth. Various kinds of bartenders are discussed—the sage, the mixologist, the rock star—and a number of drinks are fashioned in hypnotic slow motion that emphasizes the aesthetic satisfaction of a true cocktail. The governing theme is similar to many of the foodie docs that have been released over the last few years: Any and all aspects of life are capable, and worthy, of being elevated to the level of art. This assertion, taken one step further, even explains what most people are looking for from life, and what almost everyone working a job in a corporate cubical seems to be miserably lacking: something to devote themselves to that encourages a personal flourishing.
Sadly, Hey Bartender doesn’t follow its subjects’ advice regarding the refinement of technique. The film is over-stuffed and chaotic, as Tirola awkwardly juggles too many narrative gambits, including professional testimonials, evocative nighttime bar sequences, and, ultimately, the primary arc that follows a pair of contrastingly city- and country-mouse bartenders as they battle their personal demons. Any one of these approaches may have worked, but taken altogether they cancel themselves out. One can’t help but sense the much better film that eludes Tirola, and that haunts his Hey Bartender like a phantom limb.