Dinner Rush: Bob Giraldi Indie Comedy Starring Danny Aiello

There is a lot of fun to be had in Bob Giraldi’s Dinner Rush, an unpretentious, quintessentially New York indie that recalls the kind of offbeat, low-budget pictures made in the 1970s and early 1980s, before independent cinema became a forceful movement or a chic marketing hook.

Though set at a Downtown eatery, Dinner Rush is decidedly not an “erotic food-and-sex” movie, which explains why the film hasn’t done well in its NY engagement (about $200,000 in three weeks) and isn’t likely to do better when it opens in LA. Instead, screenwriters Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata opt for an intimate character study, centering on an old restauranteur (masterfully played by Danny Aiello), his relationships with his two sons (one biological, the other surrogate) and the restaurant’s regular and not-so-regular customers, mostly strangers whose paths crisscross during one endless night.

As a movie, Dinner Rush is far superior to this year’s addition to the sex-and-food genre, the stale if also enjoyable Tortilla Flat (a Latino remake of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman), which was commercially successful. Indeed, despite its setting, a chic Downtown New York eatery, the new film contains only one montage of the genre’s obligatory scene: The frantic preparation and presentation of sensual food.

In a perfect-pitch role, Aiello plays Louis Gropa, the vet owner of a local Italian restaurant who, along with his longtime partner, has done bookmaking on the side. Devastated by the sudden killing of his partner by two Mafioso from Queens, who go by the name of Black and Blue, Louis is determined to take justice in his own hands. Hence, the film closes with an unexpectedly effective revenge that plays like a consciously low-key homage to the famous restaurant-shooting scene in The Godfather.

For the most part, however, Dinner Rush feels like an Altmanesque ensemble piece about the workers and patrons of a place that has changed from a family business with an old-fashioned food to one boasting novelle Italian cuisine, supervised by Louis’s chef-son, Udo (Ballerini). One of the running jokes is that Louis can’t eat the new elegant food and has his old favorite dishes prepared by Duncan (Acevedo, who looks like the young Pacino), a good-hearted but irresponsible gambler who’s always in debt.

Though Italian in origin, the restaurant reflects the new demographics of Manhattan. The cooks represent a racially diverse group that includes blacks, Asians, and Latino, and only few Italians. Furthermore, whenever Louis goes into the kitchen, he encounters a new, unrecognizable face.

The intergenerational conflict–the reluctance of the old guard to pass on the torch to the young and ambitious breed, is only one of the subplots in a film that’s dense in subtext and rich in characterizations, capturing the flavor of a hot restaurant, where everybody wants to dine, and perhaps more so needs to be seen. One customer observes that celeb-gazing in Gigino (named after Louis’s nickname) has become just as important as eating.

In the course of the night, we meet a bunch of New Yorkers, whose goals are to score, promote their careers, vent steam–and just talk. It turns out that Udo, a handsome womanizer and ambitious restaurateur, has slept with at least three of the employees and patrons that night, and a fourth one is in the works. Single men and women sit at the bar, while being entertained by the bartender and new couples are formed.

Despite its title, the movie conveys anything but rush or speed. Rather, the need to connect, to tell stories, and to be listened to are far more important. Presiding over the proceedings is Louis, always sitting at the same table, observing the place and its human players, some of whom are grotesque and pretentious, from a distance with a wary, timeworn look. During the course of the evening, his Louis’s changes in dramatic ways, and his exit from the restaurant, which is both literal and symbolic, is one of the most satisfying and well-earned sorties seen in a movie in a long time.

Technically raw (which may be a function of the budget or Giraldi’s deficient skills), the picture is poorly mounted, suffering from abrupt cuts, sometimes in the midst of a sentence, and obvious intercuts between parallel actions. Dinner Rush is one film that screams for the Altman touch, his smooth camera movement, uninterrupted long takes (a la The Player’s beginning), overlapping dialogue, but there are other, significant rewards that compensate for the shortcomings.