Restaurant

          While the glue which holds Eric Bross' well-crafted ensemble-driven
  film together is the titular establishment — a popular eatery in New Jersey
   — the main themes of the piece revolve around romance and homophobic
  and racial concerns. As such, the generic title doesn't convey anything
  about the film and may in fact put some viewers off. That would be a
  shame, because despite some flaws, this is thought-provoking, well-acted
  treatise on dreams, love and race. Bross and screenwriter Tom C. Cudworth
  may not have fully realized all the potentials of their characters, but for
  at least the first two-thirds, the audience is pulled into the story by the
  strong performances.

          In the early scenes, the audience is introduced to the major players
  and their inter- relationships are quickly sketched in. Chris (a fine Adrien
  Brody), is a recovering alcoholic working as a bartender. He is also the
  author of an autobiographical play that depicts the messy relationship he
  had with Leslie (singer Lauryn Hill) which is being produced at a local
  theater. One of the conflicts arises when lothario Kenny (Simon Baker, then
  credited as Simon Baker-Denny) lands the leading role — he and Chris
  were friends who had a falling out when Kenny and Leslie had an affair.
  Also working in the restaurant are Chris' boyhood pal Reggae (David Moscow),
  whose main goal in life seems to be scoring the next high, Nancy (Catherine
  Kellner), a waitress who was Leslie's roommate, and new waitress Jeanine
  (Elise Neal) who soon catches Chris' attention. As Jeanine begins to fall
  in love with Chris, she learns more about his ex-girlfriend and just how
  much she shares in common with her.

          The racial overtones are implicit in the central romance (Chris is
  Caucasian; Jeanine and Leslie both African-American) as well as in the
  inner workings at the restaurant. Chris approaches the owner and goes
  to bat for a gay black co-worker (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who wants a chance
  to bartend (essentially trading his job for the coworker's chance to advance).
  This same coworker, however, has trouble relating to the other kitchen
  staffers — who utilize the 'N'-word with abandon, mostly in a jocular fashion.
  Still it bothers Warner's character, particularly because the white Reggae
  is one of those slinging it around.

          Perhaps the biggest flaw to the film is that it tries to stuff in too
  much in too short a time. Instead of just concentrating on Chris and
  Jeanine, it stuffs in subplots galore ranging from Nancy's alcoholism
  to Kenny's philandering to a wedding of another coworker at which
  Leslie makes an appearance. On the other hand, each of the actors
  handles their characters well and Bross has a breezy style that keeps
  the action moving. Still, the final third, when Leslie and Chris finally
  come to terms with their relationship and a tragedy leads to a horrifying
  and somewhat awkward racial incident feel forced. Even worse is a
  hopeful coda that feels tacked on to offer the audience a "feel good"
  ending.

          When Adrien Brody was cast as Fyfe, the authorial stand-in, in Terrence
  Malick's adaptation of
THE THIN RED LINE, there was a lot of buzz about
  the actor. Although his role in that film was cut to little more than a cameo,
  here he proves that the buildup wasn't for naught; his Chris is the cornerstone
  of the film. (He, Bross and Cudworth had previously teamed for 1997's
   TEN BENNY a.k.a. NOTHING TO LOSE). Matching him is Elise Neal,
  recalled as Neve Campbell's roommate in
SCREAM 2 and the wife on the
  ABC sitcom
"The Hughleys." The rest of the cast is uniformly good. If only
  Cudworth and Bross had focused their ideas a bit more as well as coming up
  with a more specific title, they might have had a minor masterpiece
  instead of just a good but flawed flick.


                       
Rating:                 B-
                       
MPAA Rating:        R for sexuality, language and drug use
                       
Running time:       107 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.