What is it about food movies that makes critics and arthouse audiences drool? From Tampopo to Big Night to Like Water For Chocolate, some of the most memorable moments in recent films have involved lingering shots of over-laden stovetops, and close-ups of actors orgasmically sucking down exotic delicacies. Cineastes seem to enjoy watching people prepare and eat food almost as much as they enjoy doing it themselves.
Bob Giraldi, the director of Dinner Rush, clearly knows this, and he never lets more than a few minutes of his cleverly crafted but ultimately unsatisfying ensemble piece go by without letting some nouvelle Italian delight pass through the shot. Nearly all of the film takes place at Gigino’s, an upscale restaurant in New York’s trendy TriBeCa neighborhood, that has become the hot eatery of the moment thanks to the imaginative cuisine of star chef Udo Cropa, an ambitious, rather arrogant young man played with prickly charm by Edoardo Ballerini. Udo longs for complete control of Gigino’s, but his father, Louis (Danny Aiello), still owns the joint and still comes in every night for a traditional Italian meal prepared by Udo’s cocky second-in-command, Duncan (Kirk Acevedo). The ego battles among these three men form Dinner Rush‘s emotional core, and make for some of the film’s most memorable moments.
If the filmmakers had had the courage to stay focused on this small scale of human conflict, Dinner Rush might have been as exquisitely complex and subtle as Udo’s main courses, perhaps even on a par with the mother of all Italian restaurant films, Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Unfortunately, fledgling screenwriters Rick Shaughnessy and Brian S. Kalata choose to pump things up with a contrived subplot featuring two menacing Mafioso types known as Black and Blue (Alex Corrado and Edward Burns regular Mike McGlone), who gun down Louis’ partner for unpaid gambling debts in the film’s overwrought opening sequence, then show up at the restaurant to stalk Duncan, a numbers junkie who also owes big money. Further embroiling the film in this gangster ethos, Louis himself has been known to play bookie on occasion, though of course he sanctimoniously refuses to take Duncan’s bets, since the young man obviously has a gambling addiction. This subplot comes to dominate the film, since it’s the noisiest thing happening, which is too bad because it only intrudes on Dinner Rush‘s quieter pleasures.
Many of those pleasures derive from director Giraldi’s ability to capture the inner workings of a busy, successful restaurant—Giraldi is himself the owner of the eatery where Dinner Rush was shot, and his love and understanding of the film’s milieu is visible in every frame. Better known as a director of commercials and music videos (his biggest claim to fame is the video for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), Giraldi occasionally lets his short-form instincts get the better of him, as during the film’s opening when the assassination of Louis’ partner is buried under layers of eccentric camera angles, flickering jump cuts, and out-of-focus long shots, all set to an absurd trip-hop remix of an Italian aria. But once inside Gigino’s, Giraldi’s camerawork becomes more polished and deceptively complex, moving fluidly from the bright chaos of the kitchen up the busboy-choked back steps and through the restaurant’s seductively golden interior.
Dinner Rush‘s other strength is its energetic ensemble cast; the actors do wonderful things with a weak script. As Louis, Aiello is his usual gruffly charismatic self, bringing far more depth to this inscrutable patriarch than he has any right to. Ballerini and Acevedo also give nuanced performances in underwritten roles, particularly Ballerini, who could have easily let Udo degenerate into a bratty egomaniac, but manages to convey Udo’s affection for the people around him without letting up on his relentless arrogance. John Corbett, of Sex and the City and Northern Exposure fame, shines in a small role as a mysterious customer at the bar, Sandra Bernhard is an entertainingly snooty celebrity diner, and Summer Phoenix makes the most of playing Marti, the film’s most interesting waitron, an aspiring artist with an attitude.
The scene stealer is veteran character actor Mark Margolis, as an art dealer named Fitzgerald who is every waitperson’s nightmare—demanding, whining, persnickety, and condescending. “Don’t you hate that when they tell you their names?” he asks a table of young artists and sycophants, while Marti stands there patiently sucking up his guff in hopes of scoring a sizable tip. The barbs Fitzgerald exchanges with Marti when he learns that the paintings hanging in Gigino’s are hers (he admits to not liking them, but patronizingly offers to leave his card anyway; “That’s okay,” Marti replies, “just leave a big tip”) are among the film’s funniest moments.
If this review is beginning to read like a laundry list of gifted actors turning in nice performances in small roles, that’s probably because that’s mostly what Dinner Rush is: a collection of interesting vignettes and cleverly interwoven scenes of New York restaurant life that fail to add up to a satisfying whole. Watching it is a bit like going to a dinner party with lots of beautifully presented appetizers but no main courses—there are a lot of fun things to nibble on, but it all still leaves you hungry in the end.
Given Giraldi’s tv commercial history and the fact that the film is shot almost entirely in his own TriBeCa restaurant, I couldn’t help wondering if he wasn’t more interested in shooting a two-hour advertisement for his eatery than he was in making a feature film. Where a great movie like Big Night teaches us about the importance of food in our lives—it is an expression of tradition, a means of communication, and a gesture of love—Dinner Rush just makes us want to go out and eat something, preferably in a rich cream sauce, with a bottle of chianti to wash it down. My advice to gourmet film buffs: stay home, rent Big Night, and make your own dinner. Dinner Rush isn’t a bad film, but there’s nothing on its menu that hasn’t been done better before.