THE SPITFIRE GRILL is a sometimes delightful, but all too often
disappointing fable. At its best, it is a morality tale with some
touching characters and a magical setting. I hate to report that the
directing and the script by Lee David Zlotoff is uneven and
unconvincing. THE SPITFIRE GRILL serves to both mesmerize and to
frustrate its audience. This is a shame since at its heart it is such
a sweet little story. I should say that I never found the movie overly
sentimental for which it has been so heavily criticized. It has also
become a needlessly controversial film in the press, but more on that
later in the review.
Talented actress Alison Elliott plays inmate Percy Talbot. Percy
is one of the women in the Maine Tourist Information Bureau's phone
bank in the prison. Percy is just finishing up her time for murder,
and the warden has arranged for her to get a job in the small and
busybody town of Gilead, Maine. This a cliched little village where
everybody maintains the right to know and comment on everyone else's
business. I am not sure if towns like this actually exist, but it is
easy enough to suspend disbelief and assume that they do.
As Percy approaches Gilead, it is a quintessential Normal Rockwell
hamlet. Bathed in the evening glow of Robert Draper's cinematography
is clump of houses and a white church with the canonical tall steeple.
James Horner's (APOLLO 13 and BRAVEHEART) music is mystical - full of
flutes and harps. Thus is the audience set up for a deeply felt and
moving cinematic experience which this pictures only partially
Percy goes to work at the SPITFIRE GRILL owned and operated by
senior citizen Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn). Burstyn plays the only
completely developed character and is the only actor who delivers an
entirely convincing performance. This is a role that is usually done
with gushing sentimentality. Here Burstyn transforms her character
into a tough old bird with more resilience than heart. Typical of this
is when she tells her nephew and the picture's poorly cast villain
Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) that "Until I forget my name or start
drooling at the mouth, I'll thank you to let me make my own decisions."
Joe Sperling (Kieran Mulroney) stops by one day at the grill and
begins to fall for Percy. Since she claims to be from Ohio, but has a
strong and vaguely Southern accent, he tells her, "You sound like
you're from the South." She mysteriously informs him that, "Things
ain't always what they sound."
In a supporting role full of rarely realized potential Marcia Gay
Harden plays Nahum's wife Shelby. She goes to work at the grill to
help Percy when it is discovered that Percy's cooking is inedible.
Shelby and Percy band together as friends against adversity. Harden's
acting range consists of various sad smiles.
Perpetually morose Percy keeps describing herself as being poor
white trash. If she is, then she gives poor white trash a good name.
She works hard in the grill and even develops a scheme to help Hannah
finally sell the grill which she has been attempting to do for the last
ten years. Other than her smoking and the slight problem of having
killed someone, of course with good reason, Percy is close to
sainthood. She even helps out the mysterious homeless person that
appears late every night.
In case, you haven't realized it by now, this movie is bursting at
the seams with mysteries. A few are interesting, but most are lame.
In the characterizations of Hannah and Percy is where the show comes
alive and demands to be seen. The other ingredients serve only to bog
down a promising story.
As the movie gets to full steam in the middle, the music and the
cinematography open up. They move from the mystical beginnings to
settings and sounds of grandeur. By the end of the film they come full
circle and are back to the intimate. Both of these technical elements
of the picture work well.
The ending is one of my favorite parts of the film. It follows
the more hard hitting aspects of the premise of the movie that so often
gets lost in its development. Suffice it to say, that it is not your
typical happy ending.
Before I close, I must comment on all of the controversy in the
press surrounding the funding of the film. The shocking truth is that
some Catholic nuns provided some of the money. They were looking to
find a picture with morals that they approved of, and this film had
them. Why this causes people such anguish, I have no idea. In film
after film Hollywood ridicules religion and the church. If you see
someone in religious robes in a movie, you immediately begin to suspect
him since most scripts have him be a killer, a child molester, an
alcoholic or run a cult. THE SPITFIRE GRILL avoids discussions of
religion and the only church in town is abandoned so the pro-religious
aspects of this picture are dramatically less than anti-religious ones
of most other films.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes