Directed by Bob Giraldi, starring Danny Aiello, Edoardo Ballerini, Vivian Wu, Mike McGlone, Irk Acevedo, Sandra Bernhard, John Corbett and Summer Phoenix
Every year in the midst of over-hyped, over budgeted and perennially underwhelming blockbusters, along comes a small, inexpensive yet oddly charming film which negates the oft-held notion that size matters. Kenneth Lonergan's low-key 'You Can Count On Me' was undoubtedly one of the best films of last year and now, only a third of the way through the calendar, it looks like we may already have our equivalent for 2002.
'Dinner Rush' is set predominantly in the kitchen and dining area of ultra-trendy Gigino's restaurant in Tribeca on Manhattan's Lower West Side. Louis Cropa (Aiello) is the owner of the restaurant, an ageing pseudo mob figure who's made his bed in the legal food trade, and the shadier book-making business. Now, he believes it's time to concentrate solely on the former. But his restaurant has changed irreversibly: once an intimate, low-key eatery serving "real" food, Louis's chef son Udo (Ballerini) has transformed the place into the Manhattan bistro, where the good, the bad and the ugly of New York are welcome as long as they've the wallets to match their appetites.
The film's narrative primarily frames the events of one evening in the restaurant, when Louis must contend with, among other things, Udo's demands to be made a partner in the business, a couple of mobsters who are hustling him for a stake in the restaurant as payment for an unpaid debt and, perhaps worst of all, the fact that he can't get a decent meal on his son's exotic menu. The clustered surroundings give things a claustrophobic feel, but the diverse range of characters on offer, and the different plot threads simmer together to provide a rich tapestry of New York life.
It's obvious that director Bob Giraldi, himself a restaurateur, held the casting sessions determined to avoid rounding up the usual suspects. Admittedly, in Aiello he has one - but the latter's performance is so finely pitched you'll instantly forget you've seen him in countless mob-esque films. I say mob-esque, because although 'Dinner Rush' has a mob strand running through it, it's central thread is infinitely more appetising than the usual Mafia fare. Aiello's performance is not unlike that of Al Pacino in 1997's 'Donnie Brasco' – understated yet commanding, touching but never saccharine. The tension between Aiello and Ballerini is never exaggerated, and is teased out with a firm resonance of the universal generation gap and the prevalence of familial tension. Elsewhere, the diverse ensemble shines – from Mark Margolis' memorably droll art critic customer, to Mike McGlone's oily Queens hood.
Giraldi keeps a lot of pots on the boil, but never loses the run of himself and ties it all up neatly and unexpectedly before the whole meal turns sour. This is an unusually patient and composed feature – it's solidly scripted, it knows where it's going and arrives there with a minimum of fuss. Ultimately, 'Dinner Rush' is not quite as delicious as the divine dishes which Gigino's serves up, but it's eminently palatable and will surely provide a treat for insomniacs for years to come.
Proof, if it were needed, that size doesn't matter.