Crocodile tears

As you watch The Spitfire Grill flicker by on the screen, it's difficult not to ask yourself whether the writer-director, Lee David Zlotoff, honestly thought the movie he was making was a grand tragedy rather than a mere melodrama. Sure enough, as Zlotoff cautiously unfolds his sentimental tale--about a dreamy drifter named Percy (Alison Elliott) and her search for contentment in the mysteries of everyday life--the truth slowly becomes inescapable: Percy has been ordained to be a tragic heroine, an Electra or Antigone.

That's a pretty ambitious goal for a small, arty film. But despite his game effort, the closest Zlotoff comes to pulling off the feat is in his use of dei ex machina--plot contrivances of such bold theatricality as to seem merely foolish. The Spitfire Grill tries to be "meaningful" and "deep," but in trying so hard it bites off more than it can chew, and gags on the pieces it does manage to tear loose.

Percy (short for "Perchance") is a classic outsider--a hillbilly who, by dumb luck, ends up in a New England women's prison. She works in the prison's tourism bureau, answering 800 calls and mailing travel brochures, and in the process vicariously experiences the outside world through her callers. When Percy finally serves her entire sentence, having developed some dangerously idealized expectations about her hopes for the future, she decides to begin her life again in the ominously biblical-sounding community of Gilead. The people of Gilead, though, are about as anxious to welcome newcomers, especially white-trash ex-cons like Percy, as to pass a bond to construct an Ebola virus research facility.

With its patently lofty pretensions--who in the world, other than an overeager screenwriter, would actually name their daughter Perchance?--one can imagine how the screenplay might have read had Zlotoff been able to write it in the classical free verse of ancient Greek tragedies, like a 5th-century-B.C. fragment uncovered from a dig near Delphi: The Chorus: It is six years since young sprite Percy/daughter of a broken home, abused by her stepfather/earlier confined to the penitentiary at Colonus/began payment for her crimes.

She now comes forth to Gilead/mountain gem of Maine/forested with nosy and gossipy old hens/to start anew her life of tragic consequence.

But lo! enmity and scorn await her/and love will prove fleeting.
The oracle foretells it, and it shall be so.
If Zlotoff had tackled the story with this kind of traditional, rigid approach, it might have been enough to punch up the scenes and bring purpose to his movie. Instead, The Spitfire Grill bounces around aimlessly, never developing its characters in a satisfying manner, all the while heavily depending on the atmosphere they create. Percy is evasive and distant, and suspicious about the motives of everyone in town, so fathoming why she would move there in the first place becomes a pointless exercise. Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), the crotchety ol' biddy who owns The Spitfire Grill, Gilead's top social spot, hires Percy to work there. (If you notice that The Spitfire Grill bears an uncanny resemblance to the Whistlestop Cafe in Fried Green Tomatoes, you're meant to.) Rounding out the triumvirate of independent women is Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), a lonely, frazzled housewife whose relationship with Percy provides her with an escape from her husband's abusiveness. Virtually all of the other residents of Gilead--including Nahum (Will Patton), Hannah's greedy, distrustful nephew--are archetypes of excessively pragmatic New Englanders: tight-lipped and stern-faced, spouting off about respecting others' privacy while constantly meddling in everyone's business.

While many of the characters seem overly familiar, at least the main roles are acted by a trio of capable actresses. Ever since her role in Miller's Crossing, Harden has proven herself as a gifted, if woefully underused, actress. This is by no means her best performance, but she deserves credit for making Shelby--an easy character to stereotype--unique and eventually strong. Elliott shoulders the leading role ably, but she fights to hold her own against Burstyn, who has matured into domineering matriarch roles with fluid ease.

But the performances simply aren't enough to sustain the movie for its full running time. If only Zlotoff had a genuine feel for his characters as human beings rather than as symbols, his mechanical application of corny sentiment might not seem so fabricated. Percy in particular serves the plot more as an abstract force of change than as a real person. Certainly the print ad campaign alone cues you in to the film's faux spirituality: Percy, sitting peacefully among majestic pines, warm, earthy, sepia-toned light flooding over her clean-scrubbed face, looks like some wood nymph entranced by the plain, pastoral magnificence of nature. The problem is, the movie never feels any more authentic than the ad; it's so posed and sincere that the spontaneity seems to have been forcibly sapped from it. (Stealing some of its better elements from a slew of other films doesn't help much. Even the hermit mountain man who comes out of the hills under cover of darkness to claim food Hannah leaves him is just a synthetic, New England version of Boo Radley from a real rural masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. This hermit, though, is one whose mystery is neither compelling nor much of a mystery.)

What is most disappointing, though, is how The Spitfire Grill's aspirations exceed its grasp. It occasionally teeters on the verge of real inspiration but is incapable of delivering in the long run. When Percy suggests that Hannah--who has been trying to sell the restaurant for years--auction off The Spitfire Grill by holding an essay contest where people from all over America write letters about why they should have the cafe and enclose a $100 entry fee, the film develops a flighty vivacity. The movie itself becomes energized just like all the residents of Gilead who, although initially opposed to the idea, embrace the contest by reading the letters and helping select the finalists.

Like Miss Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, Percy and her ideas are the catalytic influences that reunify Gilead as a real community. The movie engenders some genuine momentum with this gimmick, but only for a brief while, because in the end it lacks the same rude, comic charm needed to make itself less stodgy and self-important. By taking itself seriously, The Spitfire Grill becomes just one more of the crude, Gothic melodramas that Cold Comfort Farm so heartlessly mocks.

The Spitfire Grill. Castle Rock Entertainment. Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton. Written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff. Opens August 23.


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