By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
The names of the three main characters in The Spitfire Grill are Hannah, Shelby and Percy. That last name, the heroine's, is short for--get this--"Perchance."
Still haven't heard enough? Okay, here's writer/director Lee David Zlotoff holding forth, in the production notes, on the theme of his film: "This film is about the desires of the human spirit. In many ways, it is also about intolerance and fear. It's a positive human values story, not necessarily a family film, but a film you could take your family to."
If this has you chafing at the bit to get in line, I can offer you no more help. Go, buy a ticket and show your admiration for Zlotoff's courageous willingness to almost admit he favors positive human values and opposes intolerance and fear, and also his helpfulness in noting that while the film doesn't have the narrow target audience of a family film, you needn't leave the kids at home when you could just as easily buy a ticket for them, too.
I can only warn you that this account of Percy (Alison Elliott), a young, white-trash parolee who takes a job as a waitress at the Spitfire Grill in the Maine village of Gilead, has none of the ramshackle good humor of Fried Green Tomatoes, to whose audience it is plainly being marketed as another tears/laughter/uplift female-bonding soaper.
Perchance turns out to be--you guessed it--just the balm that the soul-wounded town of Gilead needs. She brings hope and magic and joy into the gloomy New England lives of widow Hannah (Ellen Burstyn) and her husband-oppressed niece Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden). Actressy accents fly--Percy's from down south (Kentucky by way of Ohio), so Elliott gets to use Jodie Foster's drawl from The Silence of the Lambs, while Burstyn does the crotchety, taciturn, weathered-frontierswoman-with-the-heart-of-gold bit. But Harden's bizarre voice takes the cake--she sounds like a cross between Katharine Hepburn and Jennifer Tilly.
Elliott, a relative newcomer, is probably worth watching for in the future--she's pretty and spirited. But this execrably written role forces her to deliver lines ("You can say that twice and mean it") that an actress as experienced as Burstyn would have trouble pulling off.
It will come as little surprise to learn that this pious corn was produced by the Mendocino Corporation, a fund raiser for nonprofit organizations, many of them first-rate (Easter Seals, St. Jude's Children's Hospital, UNICEF). Mendocino wished to positively respond to criticism of the entertainment industry by producing a dramatic feature exploring human values, sans sex or violence.
Actually, the surprisingly melodramatic back story about Percy is loaded with violence and sordid sex--and, in keeping with Mendocino's Catholic sympathies, it has a vaguely pro-life tinge. But since none of it is seen onscreen, Mendocino probably got the movie it wanted. It all feels rather Victorian; 19th-century theatregoers might have sniffled at Percy's plight and Hannah's secret and Shelby's travails.
But there's a glitch in the film's underlying sense of propriety. Percy's favorite book--the book, it's implied, that fed her spirit and kept her going during her imprisonment--is the Odyssey. Now, admittedly, that book doesn't have as much sex and violence in it as the Bible, but it does have a trickster hero who gets Polyphemus drunk so that he can stab out his eye while he's sleeping, who sees his crew turned into swine by Circe, a practicing witch, and who gets so horny at one point that he has to be tied to his ship's mast for his own safety.
It's not a bit hard for me to believe that this book full of shocking violence and occultism could be a restorative to the soul. It's much harder for me to imagine the same being said for The Spitfire Grill.
--M. V. Moorhead
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