|Spitfire Grill, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 07 December 1999|
Perhaps the best way to view THE SPITFIRE GRILL is as a movie version of a small town legend. The acting and production values are very strong, but the story feels simultaneously contrived and heart-felt, as if this isn't the way things happened, but the way those who remembered the events wished they had happened. Except, that is, for the movie's badly misjudged ending, which demolishes one of the central themes of its own story -- that redemption is possible without paying a terrible price.
Percy Talbott (Alison Elliott) is just finishing a prison sentence -- we learn why later on -- as the movie opens. Her term expired, she arrives one night in the picture postcard town of Gilead, Maine. Sympathetic sheriff Walsh (Gailard Sartain) understands Percy's desire to live in a small town where she might be able to find herself, and talks tough, elderly Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn) into hiring Percy as a waitress at Hannah's Spitfire Grill.
The town is mad with curiosity about Percy, particularly Hannah's nephew Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) and the town's gossipy postmistress Effy (Louise De Cormier). But Percy takes charge of the situation by announcing to the curious diners that she just got out of prison. Hannah, who's being trying to sell the Grill for ten years, is lonely; her son Eli, practically the life of the town, went off to Vietnam and never returned. She becomes friendly with Percy, which irks Nahum; his aunt has little regard for him and his hopes to revive sleepy, dying Gilead through a granite quarry.
Hannah breaks her leg, requiring Percy to try to run the Grill by herself, but when she can't do it, Nahum's shy, repressed wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) quietly shows up one morning and pitches in. Percy also takes over Hannah's curious duty of leaving a bag of groceries out back of the Grill for a shadowy figure whom Percy dubs "Johnny B," and tries to get to know. The three women become friendly; Percy and Shelby come up with an imaginative way for Hannah to finally rid herself of the Spitfire Grill, and to make money in the process. And this enterprise helps revive the spirit of the town itself. There are complications, of course.
The movie was written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, creator of TV's MacGYVER; though THE SPITFIRE GRILL is an entirely different type of story than that action series, Zlotoff hasn't entirely thrown over the kind of contrived plotting that many TV shows thrive on. Each incident gives rise to only one reaction, very tidy, very neat. The town of Gilead isn't entirely credible; he establishes that it's on hard economic times -- so why does everyone eat at The Spitfire Grill instead of at home? There's no feeling of a town outside the doors of the cafe, just some buildings and the post office.
The story is mechanically structured, with the kind of ending usually invented by a writer trying to prove that he or she is deeply serious, and avoiding what they consider to be a "typical Hollywood ending." However, the movie has such a gentle, peaceable, warm-hearted quality that until the end, it overcomes the obvious plotting. It's a likable movie, voted the audience favorite at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. Even if Zlotoff stumbles in his overall plot and the ending, individual scenes have a quiet strength that buoys the whole film. He gets so many of the details of THE SPITFIRE GRILL right in the first place that many expected his next film to be a winner throughout -- but so far, he hasn't made another movie.
Alison Elliott had a small role in WYATT EARP, and appeared a few obscure movies, but it was the unusual, imaginative approach she took to the role of the femme fatale in THE UNDERNEATH that marked her as a highly promising actor. Her Percy Talbott in THE SPITFIRE GRILL couldn't be more different; she's bright and curious, but shy and sullen as well; it's fine, fine work. But like Zlotoff, she hasn't been heard from much since; she costarred in THE WINGS OF THE DOVE in 1997, but that's about it.
In ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE, Ellen Burstyn was a waitress in a small cafe; now she owns the place. Hannah Ferguson is a much more conventional role than that of Percy Talbott -- the tough old broad who doesn't want help from anyone, who misses her departed family, and who ends up relying on a newcomer. She suggests an underlying sorrow and loneliness that, while they are in the script, a less skilled actor probably would have missed.
The movie is very well produced; cinematographer Rob Draper used Andrew Wyeth's paintings as his model, and has turned out rich, complex photography that follows the change from winter to spring imaginatively. James Horner's score evokes folk and regional songs unobtrusively; it's one of his best efforts. The costuming and production design are authentic to the point that you simply accept the backgrounds and clothes as real.
But it's clear that Zlotoff has spent little time in small towns; some elements of Gilead came from other movies than from real life, such as the town snoop who, of course, runs the post office. The characters are mostly drawn from old movies, too, rather than real small towns; there's little sense here of the very rigid social stratification that even the smallest American town seems to thrive on. What do people do in Gilead?
But Zlotoff does get more things right in THE SPITFIRE GRILL than he does wrong; the characters may be familiar, but they also seem like real people, particularly Percy. She loves waterfalls, she's been reading Homer, she marvels at simply being able to put her hand out her window, she adds bread and photographs to the bag Hannah leaves for Johnny B. She's a rounded, fully-developed character, deeply likable, highly sympathetic, and she helps to pass these traits on to the movie itself. It's far from perfect, but THE SPITFIRE GRILL was one of the most pleasing movies of 1996.
The DVD is the standard style one expects from Warners Home Video: competent, professional, routine and unimaginative. Like so many they release, this one practically screams for commentary by the writer/director, but evidently that was deemed not "cost effective."