Ignore, if you can, the awful trailer for Dinner Rush, now playing in theaters and apparently struck from a grainy work print. Ignore also the simplistic analogies already being made to Big Night and The Sopranos, which prove only that critical quote-hustlers given to hyperbole have noticed the movie contains food and a couple of dangerous-looking Italian-Americans. Pay attention only to the movie itself, and you'll be rewarded with some of the finest ensemble acting this year.
The cast--which includes familiar character actors Danny Aiello, Sandra Bernhard and Vivian Wu, alongside lesser-known but equally capable talents Edoardo Ballerini, Mark Margolis, Sex and the City's John Corbett and Kirk Acevedo--is so natural you fleetingly get the impression the film may have been improvised; but, no, it's too coherent for that. Like the busy night in the life of the restaurant it depicts, the film has many orders on its table at one time and manages to work on all at once before ultimately blending the individual ingredients into a satisfying narrative stew.
In a long pre-credit sequence that's like an episode of NYPD Blue without the drumbeats, we're introduced to restaurateur Louis Cropa (Aiello), an illegal bookmaker-slash-legitimate business owner planning on eliminating the former aspect of his career. Unfortunately, two petty hoods known as Black (Alex Corrado) and Blue (Mike McGlone), in color-coded shirts, have moved into the neighborhood in part on the enticement of sous chef Duncan (Acevedo), who's as compulsive a gambler as he is a born loser unable to pick the winning team. Before the opening titles roll, Black and Blue have iced Aiello's business partner, made an unrefusable offer to Louis to give them a share of the restaurant's proceeds and are preparing to rub out Duncan by the end of the night unless one last double-or-nothing desperation bet pays off.
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That's the main plot, but the dining establishment also hosts a variety of other strange characters, each with his or her own story line. Most prominent is chef Udo (Ballerini), Louis' son and a rising culinary star. In spite of his father's insistence on traditional cuisine (Udo considers a meal of grilled peppers and sausage to be an abomination), the youngster creates nouveau sculptures that prompt one customer to exclaim, "I don't know whether to eat it or fuck it!" Undeniably a success, Udo is sleeping with at least one female employee and one other customer and wants to own the place; he knows he's the main attraction. But he's also a major hothead. Proclaiming that "this kitchen will not be the last refuge for misfits!" he fires one of his employees on the spot for failing to wield a sufficiently sharp knife.
Then there's the glamorous hostess (Wu) torn between Udo and Duncan; the waitress-cum-portrait painter (Summer Phoenix) who's forced to serve a fussy, effeminate art critic (Margolis, generating the film's biggest laughs without becoming a flamboyant caricature); the Wall Street banker (Corbett) with a hidden agenda; the English bartender (Richard Harris' son Jamie) who challenges the patrons to stump him with trivia; and, of course, the inevitable imperious food critic (Bernhard).
Director Bob Giraldi, whose best-known creation is Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, is clearly hoping for a fresh start to his feature career. The press notes tell us this is his second feature, but neglect to mention the first: 1981's National Lampoon Goes to the Movies. Then again, his co-director on that film was Henry Jaglom, who has unfortunately managed to torment us repeatedly during his career as art-house filmmaker. Giraldi thus far shows a good deal more promise than his former collaborator, though it must be said Dinner Rush plays to his strengths: The man owns several restaurants in New York, including the one used for this film.
Still, his skill with actors is undeniable. While old hands such as Aiello and Margolis don't necessarily need a lot of direction, someone like Sandra Bernhard can easily go too over the top. The MVP of Dinner Rush, though, is Ballerini, most often seen as an Aryan airhead in such high-concept trifles as The Pest and Romeo Must Die. Here, he finally gives a multilayered performance, delivering on some of the promise he showed in last year's little-seen Looking for an Echo. It doesn't hurt that with his hair dyed black and with a grungy goatee, he finally no longer resembles A-ha lead singer Morten Harket.