Once again, I find myself in a position that may be insulting to some people. At times it’s harsh generalizations. At other times, it’s pointing out a lousy movie or two. But like the Dakotas, and Vermont and New Hampshire, this insult is combining Connecticut together with Rhode Island in one column. Anyone who lives in Connecticut or Rhode Island would be well within their rights to start shouting at me that I shouldn’t be sticking them together solely because of their proximity.
But the point of this article is landscape, scenery, the view. And by those accounts, RI and CT are just not far enough apart for me to justify writing a separate column for each. Both states exhibit that New England charm that is also quintessential to the experience of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It’s the red, orange, and yellow leaves of autumn trees. It’s the small town, laid-back feel you get when driving off the beaten path. It’s the colonial architecture. It’s brick buildings and cobblestone roads. It’s things that look and feel antique even though they're being used in the modern day. And it’s the coastline.
Like Massachusetts and Maine, Rhode Island tends to have a rocky coastline dotted with lighthouses to help their adventurous and hard-working fishermen and sailors find their way safely to shore. I’ve enjoyed a few trips to Newport, where you can tour the mansion vacation estates of the Astors and Vanderbilts – you know, to see how poor people used to live. The Cliff Walk around the edge of the city next to the ocean is a beautiful hike.
Although mostly filmed in Jamestown, Dan in Real Life did make some brief stops in Newport. The story revolves around a self-help writer/widower from New Jersey who is struggling to keep his own daughters from rebelling against him. He takes them up to Rhode Island for the annual family vacation with his parents and brothers and sister. You can actually rent the house – Riven Rock - where the movie was shot and spend a week looking out on Narragansett Bay.
The shoots around Rhode Island tend to center on building locations and exteriors, but you can still spot some of the wonderful natural coastline. Dan (Steve Carell) is pulled over by a cop while speeding along Ocean Avenue in Newport, looking for his daughter. Behind him is the rocky coast of the state and Rhode Island Sound stretching out towards the Atlantic Ocean. Other city/town locations include Westerly, Providence, East Greenwich, and West Greenwich. You should be able to spot the Jamestown and Jamestown-Verrazano Bridges in some aerial views of Dan driving his car over Narragansett Bay. I'm going to conveniently jump over the fact that this is a romantic comedy and pretend that because funnyman Carell is in it, that makes it all ok.
Head south on 95 from Rhode Island (which is more like west – it doesn’t really turn southerly until NY), and you’ll pass near Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. Head just a few miles further west, and you’ll reach Mystic, Connecticut. This is a very family friendly destination, with a seaport and aquarium designed for tourists and prices to match. This was also the spot of my very first Cinematic Road Trip moment.
I was somewhere between 10 and 13 when my mother took my sister and me to Mystic (things get a bit foggy when you get as old as I am now). I don’t remember much – there were boats, fish and fish-like creatures in the aquarium, and I remember making a huge mess of my hands with some honey barbecue chicken from KFC. That was a mistake. But we also stopped by Mystic Pizza – probably the one single business in America helped most by the film industry. So much so that the small pizzeria now has an entire line of frozen pizzas and has copyrighted their name. I hadn’t seen the movie at the time, so I didn’t realize that the actual pizzeria was too small to film in, so a set was built nearby (in Stonington, CT) to film the indoor scenes of the pizzeria. But that fact doesn’t seem to have hurt their business at all.
The film was shot in and around Mystic, Stonington, and Groton, and follows the lives and relationships of three waitresses (one of whom is a young Julia Roberts) who work at the restaurant. It offers glimpses of Connecticut's privileged classes as well as those of the less-privileged, like the fishermen and pizza parlor workers who take on as many jobs as they can to make ends meet. In one scene, Julia Roberts’ character, working-class Daisy, goes on a date with rich-boy Charlie, and they drive through Mystic and get stuck at its infamous drawbridge which stops tourist traffic once an hour to allow boats to move up through the Mystic River. Other scenes take place on the water since another waitresses boyfriend (a young Vincent D'Onofrio) is a fisherman. You can see him on his boat in the docks on the east side of Stonington, playing a thick-headed role that's not unsimilar to the one he now plays on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
But despite these fun facts, I have a tough time recommending Mystic Pizza for two reasons: I already recommended another romantic comedy, and the movie is just not that good. The writing is sappy and the acting doesn’t help it. But as I said in the beginning – this is about landscape, scenery, the view. Mystic Pizza qualifies on those merits.
There’s plenty more to see in these two states than I could write in a short column (New Haven pizza, hidden beaches on the Long Island Sound, villages lost through time in the woods). I don’t want to give you a play-by-play synopsis of my collegiate travels through the states. And I’ve got to save up some energy. Next week is the big one. New Jersey, here we come!
Also Recommended: Malcolm X, Me, Myself and Irene, Mr. Deeds