1998, R, 108 min. Directed by Eric Bross. Starring Lauryn Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Catherine Kellner, Simon Baker-Denny, David Moscow, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Elise Neal, Adrien Brody.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 31, 2000
In this intelligent indie drama made in 1998, a trendy restaurant in Hoboken, J.T. McClure's, becomes a melting pot for a host of personal and professional anxieties experienced by its young staff of artists-in-waiting. Anchoring the group is playwright Chris Calloway (Brody, of Summer of Sam), the restaurant's alcoholic bartender whose vaguely autobiographical play is currently in rehearsals but lacks a conclusive ending. Chris finds it in the grist of his daily life as he sorts out his feelings for his ex-girlfriend Leslie (Hill, who's best known for her musical career), and his new love Jeannine (Neal, of Scream and Mission to Mars), the restaurant's newest waitress and struggling songstress. Chris is furthermore conflicted by his ex's infidelity with his friend, a fellow waiter and actor who is cast as the lead in Chris' self-referential play. That both girlfriends -- his ex and his current -- are black and Chris is white (and still suffers the sting of his father's armchair bigotry) is no small aspect of the story that otherwise explores the predictable lives of young professionals, and dabbles in a few other weighty issues such as alcoholism and commitment phobias. However, Restaurant examines the subtlety of racial issues with an inquisitiveness rarely exercised in the movies. Rather than the outward dramas of racial oppositions, director Bross and writer Tom Cudworth focus on the unspoken questions and tensions that arise, consciously and unconsciously, in the course of daily integrated life. We see this in the relations among the racially mixed but socially restrained staff working in the restaurant and also in Chris' friendship with his restaurant buddie from the old white-ghetto neighborhood in Newark. The friend is an unabashed pothead whose shady underworld dealings and vestiges of inbred racism are used to drive the story's overly climactic third act. Too much drama piled on too late in the story makes the storyline seem especially forced, given the movie's prior restraint and observational verisimilitude. In many ways, this movie's tone captures the life of today's young wannabes living in northern New Jersey, across the divide of the harbor and in the shadow of the Big Apple's skyscrapers. Solid performances, capable visuals, and the honesty of the interracial subject matter make Restaurant stand out from the typical “I'm an artist, not really a waiter” pack.