Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Brazilian Avocado Cream

Year Released: 2007
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei
(R, 116 min.)

"May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead." Irish Blessing

The critics ooh and ah over another sordid Hollywood tale of lust, greed, and betrayal, proclaiming the technical wizardry of its 83 year old director. But what we really have here is a set of rather repulsive characters who vie with each other over their levels of debauchery and amoral fecklessness.

The opening sets the tone, a graphic sex scene not any less crude because the couple happens to be man and wife. Do we really need a front row seat to their coarse “lovemaking” or for that matter, a nude view of Philip Seymour Hoffman? 

And yet New York Times film critic A.O. Scott finds the film “curiously exhilarating,” and many others proclaim it a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. At least the bard gave even his most loathsome villains a level of grace from which to fall. Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are mired in small lives and pathetic sins, and they are relentlessly unlikable. Their only aspirations to nobility are their names – at least the more formal versions, Harry and Andrew – suggesting members of the royal family from across the pond, as does their father’s moniker, Charles (Albert Finney). 

The film’s premise, the ramifications of unintended consequences, is clever enough. Both brothers are in need of some ready cash. Hank is behind several months in child support, and Andy’s seemingly good life is about to implode with a looming audit about to uncover his systematic embezzlement. Andy’s idea is simplicity itself: the robbery of a Mom and Pops jewelry store to the tune of some six hundred thousand dollars. He has even very realistically tallied their share from the fence, a (paltry it seems to me) 60 grand apiece. Small potatoes, but an almost victimless crime, unless we count the insurance company. Oh, and did I mention that the Mom and Pops store is literally that – the jewelry store owned and operated by their parents?

As in most plans of mice and men, things go tragically awry, and most of the film is devoted to the personal devastation that ensues. Eighty-three year old director Sydney Lumet gets high praise for the innovative storytelling or should I say story retelling, because that is exactly what he does, first through Hank’s eyes, then Andy’s, and finally Charles’s. I hope I have the order right, but it was rather difficult to keep track, since Lumet also chooses to tell the story out of chronological order; that’s so 20th century, don’t you know? Actually, I am beginning to see these trendy cinematic time warps as less innovation and more possibly an excuse to fill out a rather thin plot. 

At any rate the acting is fine. Hoffman imbues Andy with enough self-loathing to preclude at least some of our need to do it for him, as one critic points out. Ethan Hawke is excellent as the weak and cowardly loser, Hank, his charm and good looks going slightly to seed. There is one point when things have gotten about as desperate as they can -- the Brothers Grim toting unzipped bags stuffed with stolen drugs and cash on their way to meet a blackmailer – when big brother Andy asks Hank if he is ready. The shrug and mirthless grin he flashes back capture the true desperation of their situation in a way words never could.

Lumet expertly uses setting and atmosphere to underscore his characters, whether it is the stone cold designer interior of an upscale drug dealer, the ratty apartment where Hank hangs his hat, or Charles’s graceful suburban house with its potted plants and bricked in terrace. And what better way for Andy to show his utter unraveling than slowly pouring out the polished stones from their chic glass bowl. Each shiny pebble is one aspect of his undoing, this slow cold rage more telling than any shattered glass against the wall.

And yet I miss the moral clarity of the earlier Lumet, he of Twelve Angry Men or his earlier pairing with Finney, Murder on the Orient Express. And as fine as he is at playing the hapless grunge boy, why am I disappointed that the self effacing grin is all that is left of Ethan Hawke’s boyish innocence when he was Todd Anderson in The Dead Poet’s Society? Hoffman, an expert at tapping his darker side, at least approached his downward spiral as Capote with wit and transcendent humor.

And finally, where is Edith Wharton (Hello Ethan Frome) when you need her? She might have redeemed this whole tawdry drama with a few swift strokes of her pen by rewriting a bombastic, out of character, and unsatisfying ending into one that is seeped in subtle irony.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Andy knows just what he is going to do with his 60 grand – relocate to Brazil, remembered for its “romance” – you know, the opening shenanigans – as well as its lack of an extradition treaty with the United States. 

I feel safe that I am not giving away the plot to lament that he and comely if not entirely faithful wife Gina never make it there. But maybe we can make a Brazilian dish to comfort them, to recall those tropical nights and soothing passions in Rio.

What about the ultimate comfort food, avocado cream? Yes, that jewel that gives us guacamole becomes the centerpiece of a unique Brazilian dessert.

Bom apetite! (That's the Portuguese version.)

Brazilian Avocado Cream

Brazil is possibly the only cuisine that sweetens avocado and serves it as a dessert, rather than salted as in guacamole or salads. 

  • 2 medium Avocados
  • 2 tablespoon Lime juice
  • 4 tablespoon Granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup Ice water 

Peel and slice the avocado, discarding the seed. Place fruit, lime juice and sugar in a food processor or blender.

Puree at high speed until completely smooth. Add a little water if the puree is very stiff (some prefer white wine). It should be absolutely smooth and creamy. If lumpy, force through a wire strainer. Serve in a clear glass.

Serves 4

Recipe Source: Sally’s